Major issues unresolved in Pa. Senate's last three days

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HARRISBURG -- If you're a Pennsylvanian without health insurance who wants state officials to reach a compromise to make it available, things are still iffy as the Legislature returns to work today.

Gov. Ed Rendell and Senate Republicans, who have been at odds for months over the $1 billion cost of extending health insurance, were still negotiating the issue late last week. Mr. Rendell dropped his proposal to help pay for an insurance extension by increasing cigarette taxes and by taxing the sales of cigars and smokeless tobacco.

Senate GOP leaders insisted that with state revenues lagging, this wasn't the time to enact new taxes or costly programs. They have a more modest health plan in mind, including allowing parents to buy insurance for their dependent children up to age 30.

In a letter to senators, Mr. Rendell urged approval of a compromise that would add 250,000 adults to the insurance rolls. That's about a third of the 767,000 adults now without health insurance. Mr. Rendell also urged a five-year extension of a program called MCare, which helps doctors pay for medical malpractice insurance.

By reaching a compromise on health care issues, "We will surprise the heck out of our critics,'' Mr. Rendell told senators.

"More and more people are in a real bind regarding health insurance,'' said Berry Friesen, a Pennsylvania Health Access Network official. "It's time for the Senate to act. It would be unconscionable for senators to turn their backs on this opportunity to help so many.''

There is no optimism, however, on another subject -- finding a way to generate $1 billion a year to improve Pennsylvania roads, bridges and mass transit. With the federal government rejecting the idea of tolling Interstate 80 and the Legislature unwilling to vote on Mr. Rendell's plan to lease the turnpike to a private operator, comprehensive plans for transportation funding won't happen until 2009 at the earliest.

Legislators claim there is no immediate crisis regarding transportation because Act 44 of 2007 calls for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to float three bond issues -- borrowing a total of $2.5 billion -- in fiscal years 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Things are looking better on another subject: electric costs. There could be help for customers of Allegheny Energy and several other power companies who are worried about sharp increases in electric rates when 10-year-old rate caps expire in a couple years.

The Senate this week will debate House Bill 2200, an electricity conservation measure that could be amended to deal with the problem of expiring rate caps. Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, said he'll push for phased-in rate increases over a five-year period, rather than having an increase of 30 percent or more hit all at once.

For dog lovers outraged that the animals are housed in small dirty cages and facing other dangerous conditions in certain commercial kennels, there's reason for optimism. The Senate is expected to discuss, and probably amend, a puppy mill bill passed by the House.

Today, tomorrow and Wednesday are the Senate's final three days of work this year. Leaders have decided not to hold the traditional three-week lame duck session after the Nov. 4 election. The Legislature's current 2007-08 session will end Nov. 30, so this week is the last chance senators will have to vote on issues.

The House still plans to meet for seven days in November, but it can't initiate any legislation that would require Senate concurrence because senators will be gone.

The Senate this week is expected to tweak House Bill 2525, the House-passed measure to crack down on puppy mills. The Senate wants the law to take effect in one year, rather than in six months, as the House wants.

Even if the House doesn't concur with the Senate amendment this week, it can still do so during its meetings in November. Mr. Rendell, who owns two dogs, wants to sign the bill requiring larger cages and better care of dogs in kennels before the session ends Nov. 30.

Another unsettled issue is whether to extend the life of the Pennsylvania Hospital Cost Care Containment Commission for five years. Currently, the agency, which studies the costs of medical and hospital care in the state, is slated to expire Nov. 30.

The Legislature also may debate a bill to ban mandatory overtime for nurses, something that health care workers unions long have advocated.

Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at or 717-787-4254.


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