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The Pennsylvania Progressive

Citizen-Journalist Fined for Telling the Truth

by: John Morgan

Mon Apr 27, 2015 at 17:07:01 PM EDT

by Walter Brasch

Vera Scroggins of Susquehanna County, Pa., was found to be in contempt of court, Thursday, and fined $1,000.

Her offense? She tells the truth.

Truth is something that apparently has bypassed the court of Judge Kenneth W. Seamans, who retired at the end of 2014, but came out of retirement to handle this case.

The case began in October 2013.

Scroggins, a retired real estate agent and nurse's aide, was in Common Pleas Court to explain why a temporary injunction should not be issued against her. That injunction would require her to stay at least 150 feet from all properties where
Cabot Oil and Gas had leased mineral rights, even if that distance was on public property. Because Cabot had leased mineral rights to 40 percent of Susquehanna County, about 300 square miles, almost any place Scroggins wanted to be was a place she was not allowed to be, even if the owner of the surface rights granted her permission.

Before Judge Seamans were three corporate lawyers, a lawyer from the county, and several Cabot employees who accused Scroggins of trespassing and causing irreparable harm to the company that had almost $1 billion in revenue the previous year.

Since 2009, Scroggins has led Pennsylvania and New York residents, celebrities, government officials, and journalists on tours of the gas fields. She often had friendly discussions with the workers-and when management asked her to leave, she did. She has posted more than 500 YouTube videos of fracking operations, documenting what fracking is, what it does, and how there may be unsafe practices.

The state DEP has even used her documentation as part of the evidence necessary to cite and then fine gas drillers.
Scroggins asked the judge for a continuance because she had only received the summons three days earlier, on a Friday, and couldn't get legal representation by Monday.

Seamans told her he wouldn't grant a continuance because she didn't give the court 24 hours notice. "He said that to grant a continuance would inconvenience three of the lawyers who had come from Pittsburgh [about 250 miles to the southwest], and I might have to pay their fees if the hearing was delayed," says Scroggins.

That afternoon, Seamans granted Cabot its preliminary injunction.

By March 2014, Cabot and Scroggins were back in court for a hearing to modify Seamans' original temporary injunction. This time, Cabot wanted the buffer zone extended to 500 feet, but couldn't show any reason why 500 feet was necessary.

Unlike her first appearance when she didn't have legal representation, she now had Public Citizen, the Pennsylvania ACLU, and local attorney Gerald Kinchy, represent her when she sought to vacate the order.

The revised order prohibited Scroggins from going within 100 feet of any active well pad or access roads of properties Cabot owns or has leased mineral rights, even if on public property.

Although the judge agreed that his preliminary order may have been broad and violated Scroggins' First Amendment rights, he continued the injunction, which still violated her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

What Seamans didn't agree about was his conflict-of-interest. He refused to remove himself from the case. On Nov. 9, 2007, he and Elexco Energy signed a mineral lease agreement for 79 acres in New Milford Twp., in the northern part of the county. On April 29, 2008, that lease was transferred to Southwestern Energy. Whether or not that lease proved to be financially lucrative is not in dispute-what is in dispute is that the judge, by signing with an energy company working separate fields in the same area as the plaintiff, even if not Cabot, could benefit, thus compromising his objectivity.

In February, Scroggins and her attorneys were again in court, trying to rebut claims she violated the injunction. This time, Cabot claimed that on Jan. 16, Scroggins, while leading another tour of the gas fields, walked on an access road to one of its operations. It never claimed she was on Cabot property-only that she was on a public access road. "There was no guard on this site," says Scroggins, noting, "it's an inactive site; no personnel; no trucks."

Scroggins argued she had parked in the private driveway of a friend 672 feet from Cabot property, and that the three persons she was hosting, including a French photojournalist, walked to the gate of a Cabot operation, took pictures, and then walked back to the driveway where she waited for them. Scroggins had witnesses who testified under oath she did not leave the driveway or go onto Cabot property.

Cabot produced a worker who backed up the company's claim, and provided a photo of Scroggins. However, that photo didn't show Scroggins on access roads or on Cabot property but, as she had truthfully claimed, on a private driveway 672 feet from Cabot property. The judge believed the one paid-for worker, not the other witnesses.

According to a brief filed by Scroggins' attorneys, "The injunction sends a chilling message to those who oppose fracking and wish to make their voices heard or to document practices that they fear will harm them and their neighbors. That message is loud and clear: criticize a gas company, and you'll pay for it."    

And that's why the Cabot Oil and Gas Corp. wanted an injunction against Scroggins. It had little to do with keeping a peaceful protestor away or protecting worker safety; it had everything to do not only with shutting down her ability to tell the truth but also to put fear into others who might also wish to tell the truth about fracking and Cabot's operations.

Just as important, a judge willingly became a co-conspirator to corporate interests. Seamans had said the fine will go to Cabot to defer some of its legal costs.

[Dr. Brasch, an award-winning journalist, is author of 20 books. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster.]
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Walter M. Brasch, Ph.D., social issues journalist
  latest books:
       Fracking Pennsylvania (investigation)
        Before the First Snow (historical fiction)
                   https://www.youtube.com/watch?...
www.walterbrasch.com
www.walterbrasch.blogspot.com

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Toomey Signs Iran Treason Letter

by: John Morgan

Wed Mar 11, 2015 at 10:40:47 AM EDT

Sen. Pat Toomey was one of 47 Republican Senators who violated the Logan Act of 1799 by signing a letter drafted by Sen. Tom Cotton.  Addressed to the government of Iran it attempts t interfere with President Obama's diplomatic initiative to deal with Iran's nuclear program.  Republicans prefer starting a massive war rather than using diplomacy to diffuse the situation.  This was also their policy in dealing with Iraq.

We've seen how well that worked.  War with Iran could provoke a new World War.  Why would anyone seek to undermine what seems to be a promising diplomatic victory?  Sen. Cotton, newly elected from Arkansas, met with major defense contractors shortly after getting his letter published in the media.  Critics assailed the letter for getting the constitution wrong and for the treasonous nature of its contents.  The Logan Act prohibits such conduct and it is a crime known as sedition:  treason.

The fact that Toomey had no problem violating the law plus the edict that domestic politics stops at the shoreline doesn't bode well for his re-election chances.  Former Navy Admiral Joe Sestak is currently on a walking tour across the Commonwealth in his campaign to win the seat.  

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Blog Update

by: John Morgan

Sat Mar 07, 2015 at 18:10:27 PM EST

Soapblox, my host company announced today that they'll be shutting down later this year.  This means The Pennsylvania Progressive will have to migrate to a new home.  If it's possible to export all the content to a platform like Wordpress I'll try that route.  If not I'm not sure at this time what my options will be.  If you use the URL thepennsylvaniaprogressive.com to get here that'll continue working regardless of where we go.  It may be that the blog simply shuts down when Soapblox goes down.  I don't have funds to hire someone to develop a new site so that may be the outcome.
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'Rithmatic Doesn't Add Up in One School District

by: John Morgan

Wed Mar 04, 2015 at 17:29:01 PM EST

By Walter Brasch

The Danville Education Association (Pa.) has been operating without a contract for three years.

Two years ago, the teachers approved recommendations of an independent fact-finder; the board rejected it. This eventually led to a protest strike of five days in  April 2014. Recently, the teachers and the board agreed to submit their proposals to an independent arbitrator.

Working under regulations of the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, the arbitrator analyzed the district finances, tax base, and other data before making his recommendations. The arbitrator concluded the district had the money to pay the teachers more-not what the teachers asked, but more than the board was offering. He also recommended increased contributions by the teachers for their health benefits.

The teachers voted to accept the recommendations. The board unanimously voted to reject the arbitrator's recommendations, even though the arbitrator agreed with most of the board's demands.

The board claims it can't afford the teacher raises. The overall budget for the 2014-2015 academic year is about $34 million. In addition, the district also has about $12.2 million in reserve, most of which the district says is for anticipated increases in health care premiums and unfunded mandates to improve the state retirement system; included is an unassigned reserve of about $2.1 million. In 2011, when the Board only had a $6.2 million surplus, the fact finder had recommended a 5.7 percent increase for teacher salaries for the 2015-2016 academic year. The arbitrator two years later recommended raises of 3.5 percent for each of the four years of the new contract.

Of the 17 districts in the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit (CSIU), Danville teachers are ninth in average salary (about $52,000 a year). The district has the second highest average income of all districts in the CSIU. Teacher salaries and benefits are about 48 percent of the total budget, down from 51.1 percent in the 2009-2010 academic year.

Every teacher pays 7.5 percent of his or her salary into a retirement account, in addition to 6.2 percent for social security contributions. The district, under federal law, also pays 6.2 percent social security contribution, but pays only 3.09 percent into the state pension fund, a slow increase from 1.18 percent in 2008-2009. (The state also pays 3.09 percent.)

Each teacher currently pays $1,453-$1,684 per year, depending on the plan, for health care. The arbitrator recommended the teachers increase their share of the total cost to 12 percent of the health care cost.

Perhaps the board needed the money for its "Community Room." That room, which will be the place for board meetings, includes a new sound system ($31,159), new carpet ($13,242), and new furniture ($8,551.06).

Perhaps the board needed the money for an additional administrator ($69,209), or for the 3 percent increases for its administrative staff, which includes a salary of $133,900 for its superintendent, more than $60,000 higher than the highest pay earned by any teacher.

Because of the teachers, the students have the highest academic scores on the Pennsylvania School Performance Profile; the high school is the only one in the state, one of only 340 in the nation, to have earned Blue Ribbon designation by the U.S. Department of Education. That honor is based upon academic excellence and/or progress in closing achievement gaps among student subgroups.

The board's performance leaves some serious questions. The major question is why even go to arbitration if you don't plan to listen to what is a fair settlement? Apparently, the board believes that only if the arbitrator agrees with all of its proposals should it accept the recommendations. This is not what arbitration is.

However, there are two deeper issues. Some residents ignorantly claim that teachers work limited hours a day and only 180 days a year, not realizing that outside of class teachers also have preparation, grading, student and parent conferences, extracurricular advising, required training sessions, and meetings; the average worker, if taking into account weekends, sick days, vacation time, and holidays, works fewer hours a year than does the average teacher. The arbitrator said many of the letters he received from the public argued that the teachers are paid more than the general public in the district, and receive better benefits. These arguments are not uncommon in Pennsylvania.

This is not the 19th century when teachers didn't need a college degree, were primarily female-they were often called "school marms"-and worked for low wages and near-nothing benefits.

Today, every public school teacher has a college degree and state certification. Every teacher is required to take additional classes. Most teachers are pursuing or have already earned master's degrees. They are a part of the professional class. But, they are still behind their other colleagues who have similar education and years of experience.

But, this doesn't matter to those who may be envious that others make more than they do, a problem not just in Danville but throughout the state and nation.
Here are two realities. First, high quality teachers-the ones who teach our children who will become our tradespeople, secretaries, physicians, social workers, firefighters, and scientists-are critical to any society, and should be paid well.

Second, if the public is upset the teachers are paid more than they are, then they should do what the teachers have done successfully-Unionize and raise their own wages and benefits, rather than complain about others and try to drag their compensation down.

[Among those contributing facts to this column were Dave Fortunato, president of the Danville Teachers Association; and Allan Schappert, president of the board of the Danville Area School District. Walter Brasch is an award-winning social issues journalist, a former newspaper and magazine reporter and editor, and the author of 20 books. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth look at the economic, political, health, and environmental effects of fracking throughout the country. Full disclosure: Dr. Brasch is a former teacher.]

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Contrived Controversy Fomenting War

by: John Morgan

Mon Feb 23, 2015 at 10:41:38 AM EST

A contrived, fake controversy erupted last week when media war mongers attacked President Obama for not using the term "Islamic Extremism" when speaking about ISIS.  These words and the air time devoted to them cause lives.  President Obama held a forum on extremism last week and refused to label ISIS terrorists as "Islamic Extremists."  For this he was vilified by Fox News.  The discussion also spilled over to the Fox Light Network CNN.  

The President refuses to fall into the right wing media's trap of making this war one of Christian versus Muslim.  Ever since President George W. Bush's giant mistake of calling the Iraq War a crusade much of the world has taken that to mean that these have been religious wars.  There have been  countless religious wars over centuries and this should not be one of them.  This is a war against terrorists using ancient forms of torture and terror.  Let's remember that their use of torture, however barbaric, is being justified by them because of our use of torture against Muslims.  We opened this can of worms.

ISIS is no more Islamic and representative of that faith than the Ku Klux Klan and the Westboro Baptist Church are of Christianity.  Nothing they stand or fight for is justified in the Quoran.  This is not the Muslim faith practiced and observed by a billion people across the globe.  Demonizing all Muslims for the actions of a few fundamentalist extremists is no different than if we condemned all Christians for the KKK.

Stereotyping people is evil and immoral.

Networks beaming footage of pundits calling for religious war is irresponsible war mongering.  People die from such actions.  The President is doing the responsible thing by recognizing ISIS as terrorists and not simply Muslims.  The term "Islamic Extremism" connotes that we, as a Christian nation (which we are not) are at war with Islam.

The result of such madness is that average Americans are targeted simply because of their faith.  Muslim Americans should not be afraid for their safety because reckless "journalists" choose to put them at at risk.  The fact a once respected network like CNN chose to jump on this topic last week on Carol Costello's program was disheartening.  This is basic war mongering and an attempt to foment hatred not just at ISIS but towards all Muslims.

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They Brand Cattle, Don't They?

by: John Morgan

Mon Feb 16, 2015 at 08:15:14 AM EST

by Walter Brasch

     "Branding! We have to make you a brand!"
     "I'm not cattle," I told my sometimes faux foil assistant Marshbaum, who had just burst into my office. "And if you think I'm getting a tattoo," I replied, "my body isn't a canvas."
     "It's sure wide enough," Marshbaum flippantly replied. Before I could throw sheets of wadded up paper at him, he explained what he meant. "It's not a fire-iron brand," he explained. "It's strategic marketing."
     "I'm a journalist," I reminded Marshbaum, "I don't do that kind of thing."
     "You will if you want to stay in business."
     "I've been in this business four decades, and I've never been branded."
     "That's why we need you to do TV commercials," he said.
     "I'm a print journalist," I reminded him.
     "Yeah, well, not all of us are pretty enough for TV, but you still have to do a commercial! Just like Jennifer Anniston."
     "As if she needs more money," I sneered. "She's got a net worth of something between $100 million and $150 million, depending upon which magazine you believe."
     "You can never have enough," said Marshbaum.
     "Yeah, that and her eight-figure salary for commercials that tell 45-year-old women they can dab junk on their faces and look like ingénues. She's hawking hair products, beer, and some fragrance Besides, she's taking money from low-income hard-working actors who do need the bucks."
     "You said that before. And before. And before."
     "It's the truth," I said. "A-list actors have branched into TV commercials. Selling everything from eyelash liners to prescription drugs to-"
     "Yeah, yeah, like that sorrowful Blythe Danner who's got some kind of problem that keeps her on stage to break a leg."
     "Exactly!" I replied. "It's what I've been trying to tell you. The rich actors don't need more money."
     "But they do need exposure. TV and film aren't enough. The red carpet isn't enough. Being mentioned in the National Enquirer isn't enough. They want it all, and to get it all, they need to be a brand. Corporate America loves it!"
     "There's a lot that corporate America loves that just doesn't matter to the rest of us."
     "But it does matter. When you see Larry the Cable Guy, you think of bad heartburn. When Brooke Shields appears on the screen, you still think of her wearing Calvin Klein jeans with no underwear. And then you run out to your nearest box store and buy whatever they're selling. Think you'll do that if you see a commercial with some no-name talent?"
     "Some people," I said, "already think I may be a no-name talent."
     "And that's why we need to brand you. Tie you to some product. It'd raise your profile, make you a brand, and make money for all of us."
     "All of us?"
     "You don't think I'd be doing all this for free, do you?! I have expenses. Besides, we'd have to pay for makeup, better clothes, a publicist, marketing manager, and a business manager. Then there's your entourage. TV commercial talent has to have an entourage. That doesn't come cheap."
     "It comes a lot cheaper if I don't do it at all."
     "What?! And be responsible for even more unemployment? A whole industry needs you to brand yourself. You get exposure and money. And that will lead to more commercials. And more commercials lead to better recognition. And the advertisers will be ecstatic!"
     "Will it get me more readers?"
     "Don't be ridiculous. If you get branded, you won't need readers. You'll live off your residuals from commercials."
     "But I'm a journalist," I again reminded him. "I write stories that give people information they need. Stories that affect people's lives."
     "TV commercials affect people's lives. Where would America be if Ellen DeGeneres didn't promote JCPenny's or Michael Jordan wasn't shilling Jockey underwear? Think you'd buy a Lincoln if millionaire Matthew McConaughey wasn't telling you to do it?"
     "If I do this-and I probably won't-what would I be selling? Cars? Watches?"
     "Toilet paper. It goes with your brand. A whole gaggle of conservative readers already say your column is full of-"
     "-great insight and sparkling language."
     "Yeah. Sure. Something like that."
     "Look, Marshbaum," I said a bit testy, "I don't need to be a brand. I do need to write my column for this week."
     "I think you just did," he said smugly.
     [Dr. Brasch's latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth look at the economic, political, health, and environmental effects of high-volume horizontal fracturing. Rosemary R. Brasch didn't want to share the byline; she says she doesn't like associating with Marshbaum.]
 

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Soapblox Incompetence

by: John Morgan

Fri Feb 13, 2015 at 17:31:14 PM EST

The blog went down yesterday because of a billing dispute with my host company Soapblox.  They continually overbill me and I must check every invoice for errors.  While rehabilitating my torn Achilles I fell behind and made a payment to them which they never credited to my account.  Because of their incompetence they blocked my site.  Never do business with Warecorp (which now owns Soapblox).
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Progressive Summit Sells Out

by: John Morgan

Sun Feb 08, 2015 at 15:57:25 PM EST

Keystone Progress held its sixth annual Progressive Summit Friday and Saturday and this year they sold it out.  800 people gathered at the Harrisburg Hilton for two days of speakers, workshops and parties.   The highlight on Friday was a speech by Cecile Richards of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.  She brought down the house by reminding the audience that although the Koch Brothers want to spend close to a billion dollars in the 2016 elections progressives can counter that with millions of people.

Cecile Richards:

 photo DSCN4020_zpsuqdjhx7s.jpg

The Koch Brothers were also the object of a speech Saturday morning by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.  The Independent socialist empowered the full house in a talk about the dangers of income inequality, how we got into the mess and how the Koch Brothers want to make things far worse.  Jim Dean of Democracy For America, based in Vermont, introduced the Senator.

Cecile Richards with Kate Michelman:

 photo DSCN4027_zpsgaftx7kd.jpg

Michael Morrill, Executive Director of Keystone Progress, reminded the progressives that we have to be the conscience of the Commonwealth and hold our elected officials accountable for their corruption even when they are on our side (or so we thought).  That comment only got sparse applause but I salute Mike's courage in saying it.  It was something, in light of the Rob McCord case, which needed to be said.

44 workshops filled much of Saturday and topics ranged the entire spectrum of progressive issues.  Sen. Daylin Leach hosted a party Friday evening and Manan Trivedi hosted a karaoke party into the wee hours.

Jim Dean's introduction of Sen. Bernie Sanders:

Sen. Bernie Sanders:

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'Made in America' Just a Political Slogan to Conservatives

by: John Morgan

Sun Feb 08, 2015 at 15:43:36 PM EST

by Walter Brasch

Conservatives in Congress have once again proven they are un-American and unpatriotic. This time, it's because of their fierce approval for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

The pipeline, being built and run by TransCanada, will bring tar sands oil from Alberta to the Gulf Coast. All the oil will be exported. Major beneficiaries, including House Speaker John Boehner, are those who invest in a Canadian company.

Opponents see the 1,179-mile pipeline as environmentally destructive. They cite innumerable leaks and spills in gas pipelines, and correctly argue that the tar sands oil is far more caustic and destructive than any of the crude oil being mined in the United States. They point out the pipeline would add about 240 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. They also argue that the use of eminent domain by a foreign corporation, in this case a Canadian one, to seize private property goes against the intent of the use of eminent domain. Eminent domain seizure, they also correctly argue, should be used only to benefit the people and not private corporations.

Proponents claim it will bring jobs to Americans. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce claims the pipeline would create up to 250,000 jobs. However, the Department of State concludes that completion of the pipeline would create only 35 permanent jobs.

The Republican-led House has voted nine times to force the President to approve completion of the pipeline. In January, with Republicans now in control of the Senate, a bill to support construction of the pipeline passed, 62-36. Congressional actions appear to be nothing more than political gesturing. The decision to approve or reject the pipeline is that of a recommendation by the Department of State and, finally, that of the President.

However, the conservatives' hatred of American workers became apparent in an amendment to the Senate bill. That amendment, submitted by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) would require, if the pipeline was approved, all iron, steel, and other materials used must be made in America by American companies. That would, at least, give some work to Americans. That amendment should have had widespread approval in the Senate, especially from the conservative wing that thrusts out its chests and daily proclaim themselves to be patriots of the highest order.

But when the votes were counted, the Senate, by a 53-46 vote, rejected that amendment. Voting for "Made in America" were 44 Democrats, one independent, and one Republican. Voting against the amendment were 53 Republicans.

The Republicans' rejection of the amendment was expected. America's corporate business leaders, most of them conservatives and registered Republicans, have freely downsized their workforce, outsourced jobs overseas, and proudly proclaimed their actions helped raise profits. Profits, of course, are not usually shared with the workers who make the product and then were terminated so American companies could use and exploit foreign labor, while the executives enjoy seven- and eight-figure salaries, benefits, and "golden parachute" retirement clauses not available to those whose labor built the companies and their profits.

Corporations have also figured out how to best send their profits to banks outside the United States and, thus, avoid paying their fair share of taxes. Several Fortune 500 corporations, with billions of dollars in assets, pay no federal taxes. For money they keep in U.S. financial institutions, corporations have figured out numerous ways to use loopholes to bring their tax burden to a percentage lower than what the average worker might pay each year.

Congress is a willing co-conspirator because it has numerous times refused to close loopholes that allow millionaires and the corporations to easily drive through those loopholes, while penalizing lower- and middle-class Americans.

By their own actions-in business and, most certainly, in how they dealt with the Keystone XL amendment-the nation's conservatives have proven that "Made in America" and "American Pride" are nothing more than just popular slogans.

[Dr. Brasch, an award-winning journalist and proud member of several unions, is the author of 20 books. The latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth look at the economic, political, environmental, and health effects of horizontal fracturing in the United States.]

 

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News & Notes January 29, 2015

by: John Morgan

Thu Jan 29, 2015 at 12:00:23 PM EST

I had planned on retiring at the end of 2014 but here it's 2015 and I'm still going-sort of.  I kind of consider myself a part-time blogger now-semi-retired.   I'll write when health my health issues allow time and/or topics interest me.

State Treasurer Rob McCord resigned today effective Feb. 12th.  He ran for Governor last year and ran a rather hateful campaign full of personal attacks against now Governor Tom Wolf.  I suppose McCord has some shame left as he seems to feel uncomfortable working with the guy he attacked so shamelessly a year ago.

The problem with making politics personal is that afterwards you can't work together.  Even the worst ideological foes can usually find some common ground where they can work together.  After an intensely personal campaign that's impossible.  McCord made the correct decision to step down under those conditions.

Montgomery County has selected Valerie Arkoosh to succeed new Transportation Secretary Leslie Richards as County Commissioner.  The Doctor ran a good campaign for Congress last year in the Democratic primary to succeed Allyson Schwartz who resigned to run for Governor.  Brendan Boyle won the election and is now a Congressman.  She's a great choice for this post.  I saw Commissioner Josh Shapiro at the inauguration last week and he said a decision would be coming soon to fill the vacancy.

Pittsburgh City Council President Bruce Kraus has announced he is seeking re-election.  Both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have major citywide elections this year.

The PA Democratic Party will be meeting Feb. 21st in Hershey for its annual endorsement meeting.  Numerous appellate Judgeships are on the ballot and some good people are running.  I know several from past campaigns and am looking forward to meeting the others.

"Guantanamo Diary" is a new book written by a prisoner at the infamous facility written from his own experiences.  This is a must read to fully understand the sub human conditions and torture we subjected these people to under the guise of "liberty."

Beware of Republicans who use the word "reform."  their definition is "to remove."  Pension reform is an issue only because the Commonwealth has failed to fully contribute as required to fund public pensions.  Now that it's at a crisis point they want to use the crisis to gut these pensions.  Let's remember that these pensions were negotiated under collective bargaining agreements and were part of people's compensation packages.  By gutting them we're retroactively voiding those contracts which were entered into in good faith by thousands of workers.  This is called dealing in bad faith and is untrustworthy.  How will we ever attract quality people to public service when we turn around and cheat them?

This is really neat:  pictures taken by the Hubble Space Telescope show the galaxy Andromeda.  It'll make you feel very small.

The Erik Arneson affair is interesting.  He is a Republican political hack who was appointed by Gov. Corbett in the closing days of his failed Administration to head the Open Records Office.  This job requires its head to be rather non-partisan because it decides which requests for public information are allowed and which are not.  The state law creating the office designed it to rule on challenged requests arbitrarily.  I don't see how a hack can do the job impartially.

Gov. Wolf was correct in firing Arneson who I first encountered when he was working for Sen. Chip Brightbill.  I was representing Democracy For America on the Raise the Minimum Wage campaign which succeeded in bring our now outdated $7.25 minimum up two dollars an hour.  As part of that effort we staged a rally outside the Senator's office in Lebanon.  As we were leaving Arneson emerged from the building carrying a sign we'd made with our requests.  He said he was keeping it as a keepsake meaning the Senator never even saw it.  That's when I knew the man was a hack.

Corbett also made several other questionable nominations before scrambling out of the Capital.  Shell Oil flack john T. Hines was appointed to DEP's Citizens Advisory Council.  So Gov. Gasbag, as one of his final acts as Governor, put a gas company guy on the Department of Environmental Protection's Advisory Council.  That's why he's now an ex-Governor.

Sen. Bob Casey has had some bad votes but his yes vote for the Keystone XL pipeline last week gave me indigestion.  This "jobs bill" will only create 35-50 [permanent jobs and the oil it transports will be exported to China and elsewhere.  We take all the environmental risk and they get the oil (from Canada).

Why is it that Fox and CNN (fast becoming Fox Light) only broadcast Islamic terrorism?  Every time a Christian commits terrorism they never blame all Christians but when a Muslim does it all Muslims are painted with the same brush.  Based on that logic all Christians should be blamed for what the KKK and Westboro Baptist Church do.

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A New Progressive Governor Takes Office

by: John Morgan

Wed Jan 21, 2015 at 11:55:25 AM EST

I spent yesterday roaming around the Capitol building as Tom Wolf took the oath of office as Pennsylvania's 47th Governor.  Because of my recent Achilles tendon injury I hadn't gotten a ticket or press credentials because I didn't know if I'd be healthy enough to attend.  As it was I limped around using a cane and paid for it by the time I returned to Reading with a very painful ankle.  I applied some medication for the swelling though and all is well this morning.  Being on my feet remains a challenge until it fully heals.

Still it was great to be back in Harrisburg and chat and visit with many friends and legislators.  I got some interesting information, met new Chief of Staff Katie McGinty, congratulated consultant and now Director of Legislative Affairs Mary Isenhour on a spectacular job and watched the inauguration on one of several large screen televisions mounted inside the Capitol.  I remained warm on this grey, cold afternoon though it meant missing out on being able to get many good pictures.  

The former Governors in attendance were clustered in a corner outside the cafe and I got a few pictures of them.

Former Governor and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge:

Tom Ridge photo DSCN4018_zps5553fdbf.jpg

Outgoing Gov. Tom Corbett:

Tom Corbett photo DSCN4019_zps0a07c32e.jpg

I met several of the candidates for state judgeships, chatted briefly with Dan Onorato, the Democratic candidate for Governor four years ago and many others.

Wolf campaigned on the premise that he'd give Pennsylvania a "fresh start" and that he would be "a different kind of Governor."  He already has set that tone by not residing in the Governor's Mansion but commuting from his home in nearby York County.  He will also continue using his own vehicle, the famous Jeep.  He has dictated that no one on his staff accept gifts, heresy in the cesspool of corruption which is our state capital.

He faces a Republican led legislature which increased its majorities in both the House and Senate all the while the progressive Democrat was waltzing away with the Gubernatorial race.  As such he said "We have to respect each other's ideas, each other's values" as his approach to building some sort of consensus with the other Party.

Wolf's two biggest goals are to enact a 5% extraction tax on natural gas to fund education and to change the state constitution to allow progressive taxation.   Both are poison to the many Teapublicans in the legislature.  Sen. Jake Corman dethroned longtime Senate leader Dominic Pilleggi (who may be plotting revenge) to take a harder ideological stance against Democrats.  The outlook for Wolf isn't good under these circumstances and he faces a $2.3 billion state budget deficit left over from Tom Corbett's failed administration.

Something has to get done and the way it does will set the tone for Tom Wolf's success or failure.  A dramatic success might lead him on a path to higher office.  

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Fracktivists Rally, Interrupt Inauguration

by: John Morgan

Wed Jan 21, 2015 at 11:37:08 AM EST

Anti-fracking activists took to the streets of Harrisburg yesterday calling for Governor Tom Wolf to ban fracking on the day of his inauguration.  Led by Gasland director Josh Fox, Pennsylvanians Against Fracking, a coalition of 90 organizations held a press conference just down the street from the Capitol.  Speakers denounced the idea that shale gas drilling is safe and called for protections against water and air pollution.  Sam Bernhardt of Food and Water Watch accused Wolf of "being overcome by the fracking industry.  He promised that fracktivists will be "a constant presence as Gov. Wolf tours Pennsylvania in 2015.

Josh Fox:

Josh Fox photo DSCN4016_zps3b2c3720.jpg

Indeed they didn't wait as they marched to the east side of the Capitol where the new Governor was being sworn into office.  There they interrupted the festivities with catcalls, whistles and chants.  It was entirely inappropriate and likely cost them much potential support for their aims.  Many of those attending the event are in positions which could influence fracking legislation, policies and even potential bans such as the State of New York just instituted.

Gov. Wolf addressed the protesters in his remarks calling on them to help him develop renewable energy sources and keep energy development clean and safe.  In this he is a striking breath of fresh air after his predecessor who was bought and paid for by the fracking industry and allowed the Commonwealth's landscape to be raped and pillaged.

Fracking Rally photo DSCN4017_zps99dc8149.jpg

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Obama Proposes Free Community College Education

by: John Morgan

Fri Jan 09, 2015 at 10:55:49 AM EST

President Obama and his leadership team are strong supporters of community colleges.  The Ivy League alumnus often has his speeches held at these institutions.  Yesterday he proposed a new program to make a two year community college education free under certain circumstances:

Students must maintain a credible gpa

Students must stay on track to graduate

Nine million students could potentially save $3500 in tuition costs under the program.  I've seen community colleges as, basically, remedial high school.  Teenagers simply don't get the same quality high school education as my generation did and many of them don't take school seriously until they're out and find they don't have the skills to obtain decent jobs.  Thus many of them return to school at community colleges to get these skills and the knowledge needed to succeed.  How often have you been to a store and when the computer was down the young clerk couldn't do basic math in their head?  Today's young people graduate from high school without basic skills we learned in elementary school.

I'm not knocking community colleges or public education.  Today's schools ahve been broken down by inattentive parents who have abdicated their parenting obligations to our teachers.  There are only so many hours in the day and when you must be both parent and teacher and have to teach to the tests the paths to success are obliterated.  Community colleges have filled this void admirably but let's not confuse them with standard four year colleges and universities in quality of education.

What these colleges do well is work with local employers to determine the skills needed for their local work forces and then teach these skills.  This is an important niche.  One flaw I see in the President's proposal is the requirement that students stay on track to graduate.  This will exclude many people attending community colleges who have to take courses erratically because of work and financial demands.  Even if this program pays their tuition many CC students have full time obs and take courses in their off time.  To make matters worse employers refuse to provide regular, predictable schedules for their employees.  How can you sign up for a course (and pay that tuition) not knowing whether you'll be able to make the classes?

From the White House:

FACT SHEET: White House Unveils America's College Promise Proposal: Tuition-Free Community College for Responsible Students

Nearly a century ago, a movement that made high school widely available helped lead to rapid growth in the education and skills training of Americans, driving decades of economic growth and prosperity. America thrived in the 20th century in large part because we had the most educated workforce in the world.  But other nations have matched or exceeded the secret to our success. Today, more than ever, Americans need more knowledge and skills to meet the demands of a growing global economy without having to take on decades of debt before they even embark on their career.

Today the President is unveiling the America's College Promise proposal to make two years of community college free for responsible students, letting students earn the first half of a bachelor's degree and earn skills needed in the workforce at no cost. This proposal will require everyone to do their part: community colleges must strengthen their programs and increase the number of students who graduate, states must invest more in higher education and training, and students must take responsibility for their education, earn good grades, and stay on track to graduate. The program would be undertaken in partnership with states and is inspired by new programs in Tennessee and Chicago. If all states participate, an estimated 9 million students could benefit. A full-time community college student could save an average of $3,800 in tuition per year.

In addition, today the President will propose a new American Technical Training Fund to expand innovative, high-quality technical training programs similar to Tennessee Tech Centers that meet employer needs and help prepare more Americans for better paying jobs. These proposals build on a number of historic investments the President has made in college affordability and quality since taking office, including a $1,000 increase in the maximum Pell Grant award to help working and middle class families, the creation of the $2,500 American Opportunity Tax Credit, reforming student loans to eliminate subsidies to banks to invest in making college more affordable and keeping student debt manageable, and making available over $2 billion in grants to connect community colleges with employers to develop programs that are designed to get hard-working students good jobs.

The President's Plan: Make Two Years of College as Free and Universal as High School

By 2020, an estimated 35 percent of job openings will require at least a bachelor's degree and 30 percent will require some college or an associate's degree. Forty percent of college students are enrolled at one of America's more than 1,100 community colleges, which offer students affordable tuition, open admission policies, and convenient locations.  They are particularly important for students who are older, working, need remedial classes, or can only take classes part-time. For many students, they offer academic programs and an affordable route to a four-year college degree. They are also uniquely positioned to partner with employers to create tailored training programs to meet economic needs within their communities such as nursing, health information technology, and advanced manufacturing.

The America's College Promise proposal would create a new partnership with states to help them waive tuition in high-quality programs for responsible students, while promoting key reforms to help more students complete at least two years of college. Restructuring the community college experience, coupled with free tuition, can lead to gains in student enrollment, persistence, and completion transfer, and employment. Specifically, here is what the initiative will mean:

Enhancing Student Responsibility and Cutting the Cost of College for All Americans: Students who attend at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA while in college, and make steady progress toward completing their program will have their tuition eliminated. These students will be able to earn half of the academic credit they need for a four-year degree or earn a certificate or two-year degree to prepare them for a good job.

Building High-Quality Community Colleges: Community colleges will be expected to offer programs that either (1) are academic programs that fully transfer to local public four-year colleges and universities, giving students a chance to earn half of the credit they need for a four-year degree, or (2) are occupational training programs with high graduation rates and that lead to degrees and certificates that are in demand among employers.  Other types of programs will not be eligible for free tuition.  Colleges must also adopt promising and evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes, such as the effective Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) programs at the City University of New York which waive tuition, help students pay for books and transit costs, and provide academic advising and supportive scheduling programs to better meet the needs of participating students, resulting in greater gains in college persistence and degree completion.

Ensuring Shared Responsibility with States: Federal funding will cover three-quarters of the average cost of community college. States that choose to participate will be expected to contribute the remaining funds necessary to eliminate community college tuition for eligible students. States that already invest more and charge students less can make smaller contributions, though all participating states will be required to put up some matching funds. States must also commit to continue existing investments in higher education; coordinate high schools, community colleges, and four-year institutions to reduce the need for remediation and repeated courses; and allocate a significant portion of funding based on performance, not enrollment alone. States will have flexibility to use some resources to expand quality community college offerings, improve affordability at four-year public universities, and improve college readiness, through outreach and early intervention.

Expanding Technical Training for Middle Class Jobs. Additionally, in order to spread the availability of high-quality and innovative programs like those in Tennessee and Texas, which achieve better than average completion and employment outcomes, the President is also proposing the American Technical Training Fund. This fund will award programs that have strong employer partnerships and include work-based learning opportunities, provide accelerated training, and are scheduled to accommodate part-time work. Programs could be created within current community colleges or other training institutions. The focus of the discretionary budget proposal would be to help high-potential, low-wage workers gain the skills to work into growing fields with significant numbers of middle-class jobs that local employers are trying to fill such as energy, IT, and advanced manufacturing. This program will fund the start-up of 100 centers and scale those efforts in succeeding years. Smaller grants would help to bring together partners and start a pilot program. Larger grants would be used for expanding programs based on evidence of effectiveness, which could include past performance on graduation rates, job placement rates and placement wages. Building on the President's community college initiative, known as the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grants and for which 2014 was the final year of funding, these funds will help community colleges become more job-driven.

Building on State and Local Programs.  In the past year, Tennessee and the City of Chicago initiated free community college programs.  In the first year of the Tennessee program, 57,000 students representing almost 90 percent of the state's high school graduating class applied for the program. The scholarship is coupled with college counseling, mentorship, and community service that early evidence suggests supports greater enrollment, persistence and college completion.  This is coupled with efforts to spur innovation and improvement by funding colleges using performance outcomes based on student success and an innovative approach to career and technical education through the Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology.  These Tennessee Tech Centers have a graduation rate of 80 percent and a job placement rate of 85 percent.

Building on a Record of Progress. Since taking office, President Obama has taken steps to expand federal support to help more students afford college, while calling for a shared responsibility in tackling rising college costs. Key achievements include:

·         Doubling the Investment in Pell Grants: The President has raised the maximum Pell Grant award to $5,730 for the 2014-15 award year - a nearly $1,000 increase since 2008. The number of Pell Grant recipients has expanded by 50 percent over that same time.
·         Expanding Education Tax Credits: President Obama established the American Opportunity Tax Credit in 2009 to assist families with the costs of college, providing up to $10,000 for four years of college tuition.

·         Pay-As-You-Earn Loans: All new borrowers can now cap loan payments at 10 percent of their incomes. The Department of Education has begun the process to amend its regulations and will make the new plan available on all direct loans by December 2015. We expect it to benefit up to 5 million borrowers.

·         First in the World Grants: In September, the Department of Education awarded $75 million to 24 colleges and universities under the new First in the World grant program to expand college access and improve student learning while reducing costs.

·         College Ratings Program: The Department of Education continues to develop a college ratings system by the 2015-2015 school year that will recognize institutions that excel at enrolling students from all backgrounds; focus on maintaining affordability; and succeed at helping all students graduate with a degree or certificate of value.

·         Job-Driven Training Grants: Through the Trade Adjustment Community College and Career Training program more than 1,000 institutions have received $2 billion in federal funding to design education and training programs, working closely with employers and industry that prepare workers for jobs in-demand in their regional economies, such as health care, information technology and energy. These programs have shown early success -- through the end of FY2013, among the nearly 164,000 individuals who had enrolled in these programs 88 percent either completed a program or continued the program into a second year.

·         White House Summit on Community Colleges: In October 2010, the President convened community college leaders, faculty and students; business leaders; philanthropic organizations; and other workforce development experts for the first White House summit dedicated to the role that community colleges play in our efforts to increase the number of college graduates and prepare those graduates to lead the 21st century workforce.

·         Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness: Last August, the Department of Education launched a new $10 million Institute for Education Sciences-funded Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness (CAPR) that is working to strengthen the research, evaluation, and support of college readiness efforts across the nation. CAPR is documenting current practices in developmental English and math education to identify innovative instructional practices that improve student success.

·         Call to Action on College Opportunity: Last December, the President, Vice President, and First Lady joined college presidents and leaders of non-profits, foundations, and other organizations to announce over 600 new commitments to produce more college graduates. Community colleges made commitments individually, and in partnership with neighboring school districts and four-year institutions, to build seamless transitions among institutions, develop clear educational and career pathways, implement strategies to increase student completion of STEM programs, and establish more accurate measures of student progress and success.

 

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Santarsiero to Run For Congress in PA-08

by: John Morgan

Fri Jan 09, 2015 at 10:40:55 AM EST

State Representative Steve Santarsiero of Bucks County announced his candidacy yesterday for the Congressional seat occupied by retiring legislator Mike Fitzpatrick.  The Eight Congressional District comprises most of Bucks and includes a large chunk of Northeast Philadelphia.  Prior to Fitzpatrick it was held by Patrick Murphy.  Kevin Strauss ran unsuccessfully last year.

Santarsiero is a proven, solid progressive with good liberal values.  He is strongly pro-choice and supports Planned Parenthood.  He ran for Bucks County Commissioner prior to becoming a State Representative and has distinguished himself as a progressive voice in Harrisburg.

From his campaign:

PA State Representative, Steve Santarsiero (D-31), filed his statement of candidacy this week in preparation for a run for Congress in 2016 in the 8thCongressional district seat being vacated by Congressman Mike Fitpzatrick.  Santarsiero is a dedicated public servant committed to the community who has demonstrated his ability to win seats previously held by Republicans.   A more formal announcement will come later in the year.

After watching the Twin Towers collapse in 2001 from his office window, Santarsiero left his job at a prominent law firm to become a high school teacher in the Bensalem Township School District.  He inspired his students to get involved in their community and led by example through organizing residents to stop the Matrix development, a proposed big-box shopping center in his home town of Lower Makefield.  That experience led him to run for Township Supervisor in 2003.  He won with 55% of the vote, beating a long-time incumbent and becoming the first Democrat to serve on the Lower Makefield Board in 18 years and only the second in recent memory.  He later helped secure the first ever Democratic majority on the Board and became its chairman.

In 2008, Steve Santarsiero won an open seat in the Pennsylvania state house that had been held by a Republican since it was created in 1992.  As a state legislator, Steve earned a reputation as a reformer when he repeatedly turned down legislative perks, including per diems, state cars and free health care; pushed for campaign finance reform; wrote what became the House's new ethics rules on political activity; and became a leader on a variety of critical issues from gun safety to protecting our water and the environment to giving PA residents priority for state contracts.

"I'm excited to start preparing a campaign to represent the people of Bucks and Montgomery Counties in Congress," Santarsiero said.  "It's time we make Washington accountable to our citizens.  I will make it a priority to focus on keeping the middle class families of the 8th District secure while helping to grow our economy, create jobs and bring real reform to Washington."

State Representative Santarsiero and his wife, Ronni, have lived in Bucks County for 19 years.  They have three children, Nancy (17), Billy (15), and Johnny (11).

Former Congresswoman, Allyson Schwartz, who like Santarsiero served in the state legislature before running for Congress said, "Steve Santarsiero's entry into the race is great news for the 8th District and for our Democratic Party.  His broad support among Republicans, Democrats, and independent voters will make him a formidable candidate."

John Cordisco, Chairman of the Bucks County Democratic Committee, and another former state legislator, echoed Rep. Schwartz's optimism.  

"Steve can win this seat.  He just won re-election to the state house by a landslide in a swing district in what turned out to be a very bad year for Democrats," Cordisco explained.  "He has a clear track record of winning in a tough district, and that's what we will need to prevail in the 2016 congressional race."

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Leak Says Kane to be Indicted

by: John Morgan

Fri Jan 09, 2015 at 10:35:43 AM EST

According to press accounts a leak from a secret grand jury says Attorney General Kathleen Kane will be indicted for leaking secret grand jury proceedings to the Philadelphia Daily News to attack an enemy.  It's ironic that the news comes via a leak.  It makes one wonder if it's really a crime after all if the PA Supreme Court grand jury, begun by former Republican Chief Justice Ronald Castille and run by GOP District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman of Montgomery County leaked this information.  Who will now investigate this leak?

If it feels like a merry-go-round it is.  Of course my issues with Kane go back to the Pennsylvania Democratic primary for AG when Kane ran false claims against her opponent Patrick Murphy.  Her campaign made blatantly false assertions about him to damage his credibility with voters.  When I called them out on it they lied about giving me the information (it was given to me in a telephone call by her campaign communications director).  Kane then lied about it on PCN when a viewer called in questioning her veracity.

Since then Kathleen Kane has been in a downward spiral due to her penchants for attacking her political foes and for lying.  She made numerous assertions about why she wouldn't prosecute numerous public officials caught on tape accepting bribes.  Philadelphia DA Seth Williams then took the case and, so far, has obtained three convictions.  Not only was the case prosecutable but Williams held a press conference and proved that Kane's assertions about the cases were all lies.

Oh what a tangled web we weave...

Kane's political carreer has been like a meteor:  up quickly and then burned out in flames.  Mentioned just last year as a possible contender for the U.S. Senate seat held by Tea Bagger Pat Toomey (up for re-election next year) she now is facing disgrace and a possible criminal conviction.

Ferman has now to decide when and whether to arrest the state's sitting Attorney General.  She is not running for re-election so isn't facing dire political consequences thus she can make this decision free of that baggage.  Current MontCo Commissioner and former DA Bruce Castor (a good man) has announced his candidacy to seek his old job.  He is the minority Commissioner and being DA would give him much more job satisfaction.

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