Democratic Presidential Debate

Democrats held their 4th debate on January 17 in Charleston, South Carolina, the final one before the Iowa Caucus (February 1) and New Hampshire Primary (February 9).  Hosted by NBC News, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley participated, with Hillary and Bernie spending much of the debate focusing on gun control, healthcare, Wall Street regulation and their ability to defeat a Republican in a general election. They held their third forum on January 11, at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa that focused on minority issues.


Republican Presidential Debate

Republicans held their most recent debate in Charleston, South Carolina on January 14. The debate was hosted by Fox Business and candidates were split into two groups. Those that made the “primetime” debate based on polling criteria included (in alphabetical order): Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, and Donald Trump. Candidates invited to participate in the “secondary” debate included Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul and Rick Santorum. Former New York Governor George Pataki announced on December 29 that he was withdrawing his candidacy. Republicans will hold one more debate before the Iowa Caucus (February 1) on January 28 and another debate before the New Hampshire Primary (February 9) on February 6. Including this month’s debate, Republicans have a total of 7 more debates scheduled.


Final State of the Union Address

President Obama made his last State of the Union address on January 12.  He focused on the progress made during his Presidency, and asked Congress to act on the following three issues: revisiting the presidential authority to use military force against the Islamic State, approving the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and lifting the Cuban trade embargo.

Congressional Republicans Annual Retreat

Republicans in the Senate and House met last week for a joint retreat in Baltimore. The meeting took place so that they could map out their 2016 legislative agenda. At this meeting, the “Freedom Caucus,” led by Ohio Representative Jim Jordan, discussions revolved around commitment to passing all 12 spending bills; changes surrounding the Senate filibuster; the budget; Speaker Paul Ryan’s plans for a “bold, pro-growth agenda” that include national security, the economy, health care, poverty, and “Restoring the Constitution;” and a focus on criminal justice reform.


Federal Reserve Audit Proposal Blocked

On January 12, a proposal to audit the Federal Reserve failed to pass in the Senate. The bill, introduced by Presidential candidate Rand Paul and supported by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, was opposed by the Democrats, the White House and the Chamber of Commerce.  The “Federal Reserve Transparency Act,” received a 53-44 vote, falling short of the 60 needed to advance under Senate rules. If passed, the legislation would have expanded oversight over the Federal Reserve and empowered the Government Accountability Office to audit the institution for the first time.


International Sanctions against Iran Lifted

International sanctions on Iran were lifted on January 16 after International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors confirmed that Iran completed the necessary steps to restrict its nuclear program.  US Secretary of State John Kerry stated that the world was a safer place as a result, and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani addressed it as a "historic day" for the Islamic republic.


Health Care News

Early this year, Republicans were able to get a partial repeal of the Affordable Care Act through Congress and onto the President’s desk for the first time. The House of Representatives voted 240-181 in favor of legislation that eliminates the penalties imposed on individuals and large employers for not complying with the individual and employer mandates. The legislation would also, by 2018 roll back Medicaid expansion at the state level, and would cut off funding for Planned Parenthood. The Senate passed the bill December 3rd of last year by a vote of 52 to 47 through the reconciliation. As expected, the White House has vetoed the bill. However, Republicans went through the process of passing this bill using the reconciliation process as a test run for 2017 in the event they retake the White House and maintain their majorities in both chambers of Congress.


The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pension approved cardiologist Robert Califf’s nomination to the Food and Drug Administration on January 12. He was nominated by President Obama in September following Margaret Hamburg’s announcement that she was stepping down in March of this year.   Dr. Califf founded the Duke Clinical Research Institute and served as a clinical trial researcher at Duke University before joining the FDA in early 2015.  Califf appears to have support among Senate Republicans, with some Democrats concerned about his industry ties.


January 15 was the deadline for individuals to sign up for ACA health insurance plans who want coverage starting February 1. According to HHS, 11.3 million people have already signed up for plans. January 31 is the final deadline to sign up for a plan or face penalization for not having health insurance in 2016.


The U.S. Preventative Service Task Force has published its final recommendations to HHS for breast cancer screenings. Specifically, they are recommending that women should begin regular screenings at the age of 50. Between the ages of 50 and 75, they recommend screenings every other year. For women 40-49, the taskforce states that women and their doctors should decide when to begin screenings. They did not offer recommendations for women over the age of 75 citing a lack of evidence to advocate for or advise against continued screenings. The American Cancer Society recommends women begin annual screenings at the age of 40. If the recommendations are implemented by HHS, they could result in women 40-49 not being guaranteed mammogram coverage without copayments. The omnibus bill signed by the President contained language that delayed implementation of breast cancer screening recommendations until 2018.


Obama Initiates Moratorium in Leasing Federal Land for Coal Mining

President Obama has initiated a moratorium in leasing federal land for coal mining, but has left the final decisions up to his successor.  Announced on January 15, the pause allows the Department of the Interior to study mining’s impact to the environment; examine where mining should take place, if at all; and to evaluate changes in the value of coal in the U.S. and the royalty rates energy companies pay. The pause will run concurrently with the environmental study, a process slated to take three years.   The halt is limited to new coal leases on federal and Indian land. Companies that currently hold federal coal leases are permitted to mine during and after the moratorium.  Metallurgical coal utilized in steel production is excluded from the suspension.


Approximately 40 percent of coal comes from federal land in the U.S.  The coal leasing program has undergone scrutiny from interest groups and government investigators, who blame the government for selling coal for less than its full market value.


Obama Administration to Curb Methane Emissions

Within days, the Interior Department is slated to issue rules mandating cuts in the flaring or venting of methane when fracking on federal and tribal lands.  This initiative will be the first federal regulation of methane emissions from existing wells.   Nearly 100,000 wells on public lands would be affected by the regulations. 


With oil and gas prices continuing to plummet, industry objects to the federal rules, stating they are unnecessarily costly, especially during a time when the industry needs a boost as workers are being let go and companies are forced into bankruptcy. The administration argues it’s a rational approach as methane is a commodity that can be sold.   Environmentalists tout the methane rules are necessary because oil and gas operations on public lands are high-emitting, especially at wells that are not close to a pipeline.  According to the Environmental Defense Fund, venting and flaring led to losses of more than 1 million tons of methane from oil and natural gas operations on federal and tribal lands in 2013, representing about 12 percent of the nation’s methane emissions.










NJ Clean Vehicle Task Force Bill on Governor’s Desk

On January 7, in a 23-14 vote, the NJ Senate signed off on legislation to establish the Clean Vehicle Task Force. The bill was approved by the NJ Assembly on December 17 and referred it back to the Senate for a concurrence vote. The bill now sits on Governor Christie’s desk for consideration.


The bill (A-2405), sponsored by Assembly Democrats Tim Eustace, Daniel R. Benson and Gordon Johnson, would establish the Clean Vehicle Task Force, whose 11 members would evaluate issues related to the promotion, development and use of low-, zero- or partial zero emission vehicles in New Jersey.  The task force would consist of: the DEP commissioner (chair); the president of the Board of Public Utilities; the commissioner of the Department of Transportation; the state treasurer; the director of the Division of Rate Counsel; one member each of the Senate and the Assembly, to be appointed by the Senate president and the Assembly speaker, respectively; one representative each of auto manufacturers, auto retailers, a public electric or gas utility and a recognized statewide environmental organization, to be appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the Senate.  The body would submit a report with recommendations to the governor and the legislature within a year of organizing. 


The task force will be responsible for studying the development of electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell technology, identifying bureaucratic obstacles to the use of low-emission vehicles and evaluating any proposed or adopted changes with respect to air quality, fuel economy and greenhouse gas emission standards made by federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.


Hospital Community Service Contribution Measure Passed

New Jersey Senate Bill S3299 that would require all New Jersey nonprofit hospitals to pay fees in lieu of taxes to cover the costs of public safety and other municipal services is heading to Governor Christie’s desk.   On January 11, the Hospital Community Service Contribution passed both houses of the legislature with a 37-0 vote in the state Senate and a 61-9 vote in the state Assembly.


According to the bill, hospitals would pay the hosting municipality $2.50 per day for each hospital bed and $250.00 per day for each satellite emergency care facility. Fees would increase 2 percent each year for inflation. 


Approximately 85 percent of the state’s 72 hospitals are non-profits and exempt from property taxes.  Proponents of the bill say it will help hospitals retain their tax-exempt status, protecting them from significant taxes, while still making them contribute financially to the community services they need, according to the report.  Critics are calling the bill a "clear giveaway to the hospital lobby," according to NJ.com. Those who oppose the bill say it will shortchange cities that host nonprofit hospitals, according to the report.






Final Legislative Sessions Wrapped Up for 2015

Ohio lawmakers will return from holiday break next week, where medical marijuana, guns, unemployment benefits and voter registration are slated to be the hot button issues in the General Assembly.  Lawmakers are halfway through the two-year legislative session. Governor Kasich has signed 31 bills into law this session, while 400 House bills and 249 Senate bills are still pending in the General Assembly.


Medical Marijuana

Ohio lawmakers have expressed interest in authorizing limited use of marijuana for medical purposes. Last week, the Ohio House announced a task force assigned to study a medical marijuana program. In November, voters overwhelmingly rejected state Issue 3, a proposed constitutional amendment that would have legalized marijuana use for medical and recreational purposes.


Unemployment Benefits

House Bill 394, sponsored by state Rep. Barbara Sears, R-Sylvania, looks to drastically overhaul Ohio’s unemployment compensation system. Approximately 50,000 Ohioans receive unemployment checks.  A fiscal analysis conducted by the non-partisan Legislative Service Commission said the bill would cut employer taxes by $313M annually from 2018 to 2025 while benefits paid out would be reduced by $475M each year during the same timeframe. Workers would be limited to 12 to 20 weeks of unemployment benefits, down from the current maximum of 26 weeks.  The state was forced to borrow from the federal government to keep issuing unemployment checks as a result of the fund going broke in January 2009. The state borrowed more than $2B and has had to pay interest on the loan since 2011. The state still owes more than $700M on the debt and has paid $218M in interest. Critics of the pending bill including unions and workers’ rights groups say the proposal will cut benefits to unemployed workers while reducing taxes for employers.


Voter Registration

Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted is pushing Senate Bill 63 which promotes that online voter registration is more convenient, secure, accurate and less costly than the paper voter registration process. The bill has passed the Senate and is pending in the House.  31 states currently allow online voter registrations.


Gun Laws

House Bill 48, sponsored by state Rep. Ron Maag, R-Lebanon, is pending in the Ohio Senate. Under the bill, concealed weapons permit holders would be allowed to carry guns into public areas of police stations, day care centers, airports and college campuses.






2016 Races

While nomination races for president and U.S. Senate have been on the minds of voters for months, there are other races taking place in Pennsylvania that will also glean some attention.


Even with a later primary election date (April 26), competitive races for the presidential nominations could turn the Commonwealth into a nominating player for both parties. 


In the U.S. Senate primary race, a win in November is critical to Democrats’ hopes to take control of the Senate. Joe Sestak, a retired three-star admiral who narrowly lost to Republican incumbent Pat Toomey six years ago, faces former gubernatorial chief of staff Katie McGinty and Braddock Mayor John Fetterman.


In the primary race for Attorney General, Democrats seeking to replace incumbent Kathleen Kane as the party’s nominee include Pittsburgh attorney David Fawcett, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr., Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro, Delaware County prosecutor Jack Stollsteimer, and Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli.  Kane conceded that she may not be able to run for a second term while her law license is suspended. Senator John Rafferty of Montgomery County is running unopposed for the GOP nomination.



In the state treasurer’s race, candidates include Joe Torsella, a former UN ambassador and key aide to former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, and Albert Baker Knoll, a former oil industry lobbyist and son of late former lieutenant governor Catherine Baker Knoll. Allegheny County Treasurer John Weinstein stated that he is still pondering a run.  Berks County businessman Otto Voit is running unopposed for the GOP nomination.


In the race for auditor general, Democrat incumbent Eugene DePasquale faces no announced primary competition. Northampton County Executive John Brown is seeking GOP support to challenge DePasquale.


In the Congressional races, not much change is anticipated to Pennsylvania’s 18-member Congressional delegation of five Democrats and 13 Republicans. However, two Democrats are hoping to make change.  In House District 12, Erin McClelland, who lost to current Congressman and Republican Keith Rothfus in 2014, is up against attorney and solar-energy executive Steve Larchuk.  In House District 9, Congressman Bud Shuster faces challenger Art Halvorson, whom Shuster beat in 2014.










Duane Morris Government Strategies, LLC will continue to monitor these and other
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