5 Pennsylvania Politics stories to watch in 2014

Pictured: An Obama win.

You’ve probably read several “Best of 2013” lists over the last few days. I hear Philadelphia Weekly even put out one of its own! But personally, I’m totally done with 2013. So, I’ve put together a list of Pennsylvania politics stories that I think we’re all going to be hearing a lot about over the next year—in part, because of how they developed over the past one.

I’ve been covering a bunch of this stuff on PhillyNow for the past few years, and don’t intend to stop, but as it happens, we’re prepared to introduce a lot more diversified coverage of new topics and storytelling in the new year, continuing the efforts that made this blog the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s Best Staff Blog in 2013.

And so I don’t forget (and it’s not lost on any regulars), I want to thank you, readers, for continuing to read — it means a ton to me, and is in part how I afford to live — and I hope you continue learning something from what you see here for years to come.

With that, here you go: Five Pennsylvania Politics stories to watch in 2014.

LGBT rights

2013 was a big year for LGBT rights. And it sort of took everyone by surprise. During the November 2012 elections, three states—Maine, Maryland and Washington—approved same-sex marriage by voter referendum while a fourth state, Minnesota, rejected an effort to ban same-sex marriage on the state’s constitution. Legislatures all over the northeast, mid-west and west accepted marriage equality via their state legislatures.

The Supreme Court struck down Proposition 8, which had previously barred marriage equality in California; Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act was killed and toward the end of the year, New Jersey’s Supreme Court ruled that state had to recognize full equality for same-sex couples.

While this was all happening, the people of Pennsylvania were following along, a vast majority of us now supporting nondiscrimination bills in the legislature and we’re slowly coming around to same-sex marriage.

But you wouldn’t know it from looking at our government, the only in the Northeast to not offer equality for same-sex couples—and the only where it’s still legal to discriminate against someone in a business, employment or housing, for their sexual identity or orientation.

Many in state government, often led by state Rep. Brian Sims (D-Philadelphia) fought back on LGBT rights this year. Numerous pro-equality bills were introduced to high fanfare, like House Bill 300 and Senate Bill 300, which would end legal discrimination, but the year’s end has come, and they haven’t moved.

But 2014 could mean different. There’s a governor’s race coming up and Tom Corbett has said he would be open to ending legal discrimination, if only the legislature would give him the bill. I wrote about that here—and am extremely pessimistic about it, but would be open to covering myself being totally wrong.

How much can the Un- and Under-employed take?

The unemployed and underemployed got fucked in 2013. There’s really no other way to put it. Republicans seem to have gotten tired of supporting them after the economic collapse and spent much of the year chipping away at some of the benefits that have kept the poor afloat since the 2008 crash.

Beginning with food, Republicans in the House passed a farm bill which would cut $39 billion from food stamps in September. Democrats said they wanted to keep food stamps as is. That bill is still in limbo, but needs to pass. Most believe it will include cuts, but no one’s sure as to how much.

At the same time, the emergency addition to the food stamp program was set to run out –and it did on November 1stcutting benefits across the board for a 47 million households. In Philadelphia, there are about 470,000 people on food stamps in, and they’re all feeling the cuts, which meant $36 per week for a family of four.

And then there’s unemployment benefits. The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson called cuts to that program the “cruelest cut of all.” And with good reason: There are about 1.3 million Americans who’ve been unemployed for more than six months and have moved from state-run benefits to long-term unemployed federal benefits. And those benefits just ended.

There are 86,000 people in Pennsylvania who lost their long-term unemployment benefits a few days ago, when the program ended. Many have called upon the federal government to restore the cuts, but this is the federal government we’re talking about.

The effects of all those cuts are going to be felt, hard, in 2014. And people can only take so much.

Something needs to happen to the Minimum Wage

There’s been a lot of talk about the minimum wage this year. The federal wage is stuck at $7.25 per hour, and some semi-organized workers around the country are demanding it get up to $15/hour. President Obama has called upon Congress to create a $9/hour wage, but no one seems to be budging.

With the minimum wage so low, the public cost has gone up. One argument often made (which I agree with) is that when corporations pay their employees such low wages, those employees often go to public assistance. In Pennsylvania, according to a report released this fall by the University of California-Berkeley, that cost reaches $204 million per year in the fast food industry alone; 42 percent of fast food workers are on public assistance.

There are several bills in the legislature which call on the state to raise the minimum wage. Looking forward, state Rep. Mark Cohen (D-Philadelphia) has said he is planning on new minimum wage bills for the coming year, one of which would end the ban on local governments setting their own minimum wage standards, the other of which would establish a timeframe to bring the minimum wage to $11.50. The current state rate is the same as the national: $7.25.

Similarly, there will be a question on the 2014 primary ballot in Philadelphia which would raise the minimum wage for city subcontractors to be in line with city workers and contractors. Currently, those who contract with the city are required to earn 15 percent of the state or national minimum wage (whichever is higher)—currently setting that wage at $10.88.

Lastly, there are a number of Democrats looking to replace Gov. Corbett in the 2014 election. At last count, all have proposed bringing up the state’s minimum wage.

Privatization

On Monday, it was announced that Corbett was abandoning his attempt to privatize the state lottery, selling it to a British firm, for the time being. But that’s not the only privatization scheme the governor is looking at, and has been, throughout his 3-year rule.

Another privatization attempt that’s been going on has been the state liquor stores. Corbett first announced his support of that state agency at the end of his 2010 campaign, when it became obvious he was set to win.

I’ve hear Corbett will make a final push for liquor privatization this year (because, honestly, when else would he do it?). Liquor privatization is popular with Pennsylvania voters and basically the only issue Corbett truly believes in that polls well with commonwealth voters.

In Philadelphia, there’s been talk of selling Philadelphia Gas Works, though that idea’s been controversial. According to an Inquirer report, a privatized PGW wouldn’t generate much city revenue compared with what it does now. Even if the initial sale brought in as much as $1.9 million, according to estimates, money which could be used to pay down the city’s pension liability and other obligations.

Lots of cities and states have privatized the above agencies/utilities in recent years—Washington State recently privatized its liquor system and New Jersey privatized its lottery in 2013—but like lots of issues, Pennsylvania likes to take a good, long, look before getting all hopey-changey.

And…oh yeah, the Governor’s Race!

Right. There’s a huge governor’s election coming up in 2014. Gov. Tom Corbett is universally known as the most vulnerable governor in the United States, having come into office after the Astroturffed Tea Party uprising of 2010. Now, like the Tea Party, Corbett has made lists of ‘Biggest Losers of 2013,’ due to his record-low poll numbers and his ability to get his foot stuck in his mouth so often, it’s hard to believe he hasn’t developed Athlete’s Tongue, assuming that were a thing.

There are many, many Democrats vying to take Corbett on in 2014. They include John Hanger, Jo Ellen Litz, Rob McCord, Katy McGinty, Max Myers, Ed Pawlowski, Allyson Schwartz and Tom Wolf. There are worthy arguments over who would do best against Gov. Corbett, but most polls show virtually all top-tier candidates beating the governor—which, ten months out, doesn’t actually mean that much. So stay tuned.

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