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Seats up for grabs as GOP carves lead for House

Wolf lays down requirements for redrawing Pa. map

Gov. Tom Wolf is carrying out a delicate balancing act as the state moves toward its new, less crowded congressional map.

As other states set their own maps, Wolf is laying down his requirements for Pennsylvania’s upcoming map.

On Nov. 24, Wolf announced a series of principles set down by his Redistricting Advisory Council, a six-member panel made up mostly of academics.

The principles include typical legal requirements — that districts are fairly compact and follow the Voting Rights Act, for example — as well as more specific preferences.

Wolf said the party makeup of the state’s congressional delegation should roughly match voters’ preferences, meaning the delegation would likely be split roughly evenly. The map should also be “responsive to changing voter preference,” meaning a party wouldn’t be assured a lock on all its seats when voters swing toward the other side.

“The decision of whether to accept or veto the upcoming map will be one of my most important moments as governor and these principles will be crucial in guiding my review,” Wolf said.

Democrats and Republicans will lose their even split next year, when the state’s delegation shrinks from 18 to 17 members. Republicans will likely be looking to cut out a Democratic-leaning seat, but they’ll have to tread carefully to avoid a veto.

“There’s a lot of agreement on some things,” Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, a member of the committee working on the new map, told WHYY this week.

Some states with one-party governments, meanwhile, are drawing more partisan maps.

Republican-run states have already redrawn their maps to flip five Democratic-leaning districts across the country — enough to control the House even if they didn’t gain new votes, the New York Times reported. Other states are set to draw their maps soon.

Tolls get Harrisburg attention

Lawmakers in Harrisburg are setting their sights on the Turnpike — particularly the automated system that collects tolls and bills those who fail to pay.

This week, Rep. Ryan Warner, R-Fayette, said he’ll introduce a bill requiring the Turnpike Commission to tell customers when they’ve been billed for passing a stop improperly. Warner said 200,000 people have been charged this year with so-called V-tolls, the bills charged automatically to E-ZPass customers whose devices don’t scan when they exit the Turnpike.

“Unfortunately, because E-ZPass toll and fee charges are automatically withdrawn, and because V-tolls have frequently been mislabeled on monthly statements, it has taken customers months, or even years, to realize that they have been charged these fees,” Warner said in a memo to colleagues.

Repeated hikes in Turnpike fees have drawn criticism from drivers, trucking business groups and politicians alike. Since the Turnpike Commission replaced in-person toll workers with electronic scanners, officials have worked to avoid losses to drivers who simply don’t pay.

Those losses — $104 million in the latest fiscal year, a sharp increase from the year prior — prompted Sen. Marty Flynn, D-Lackawanna to propose a package of new Turnpike legislation last month.

Flynn proposes a tougher policy on those who don’t pay their bills, cutting the number of unpaid bills required for the state to suspend a driver’s vehicle registration. Under his proposal, which matches a prior House bill, four unpaid tolls or $250 worth of charges would be enough to lose registration.

Other proposals include renewed in-person staffing and an annual report on lost revenue.

We need to stop the bleeding and find solutions,” Flynn said in a memo last month.

Bill would make towns pay for police

A state legislator is moving to ban what he calls “actual defunding the police” — a far cry from the slogan that gained popularity amid recent years’ protests.

This week Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, issued a brief memo on his intention to restrict sweeping police budget cuts. While Sturla’s memo didn’t go into detail, he said municipalities that slash police funds would have to pay the state to cover replacement state police coverage.

Any municipality that cuts police funds by more than 75 percent in one year would have to make up the difference to the state.

The plan would “stop municipalities from reducing or disbanding their local police departments while turning to the state to pick up the tab,” Sturla wrote.

Despite warnings from police groups and politicians, few local governments have truly defunded police in the wake of protests against police killings. Some small municipalities have cut local police coverage, however, leaving state troopers to replace them.

The borough of Freeport, Armstrong County drew headlines last month after its last remaining police officer quit after one day on the job, leaving state police to cover the gap. The borough has since hired new officers.

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Ryan Brown covers statewide politics for Ogden Newspapers. He can be reached at rbrown@altoonamirror.com.

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