Contributed by Amara Willey.
Although Democrats picked up a few seats in the Pennsylvania legislature and Governor Tom Wolf stayed in office, Republicans retained control of the House and Senate. We see the Republican caucus moving in a more conservative direction as moderates lost seats to Democrats.
Nevertheless, there are several interesting bills to watch this year in Pennsylvania in the areas of fair pay, the environment, and legalization.
- Changes to overtime pay – A bill mandating “white collar” employees be paid overtime if their weekly salary is under $610 per week. The salary minimum would increase after the first and second year respectively, forcing employers to pay overtime or increase wages. The state projects that the change would affect 460,000 workers.
- Limiting methane from existing gas and oil wells – Stricter emissions standards were applied last year to new gas and oil wells. This bill would limit VOCs including methane gas from existing wells. Even though federal Environmental Protection Agency standards may be withdrawn, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection intends to push forward with this bill. Concerns about the bill involve potential costs.
- Nuclear power – Lawmakers in the Energy Caucus recommended in a Nov. 2018 report that nuclear power be added to the list of alternative energy sources in the Alternative Energy Performance Standards program, which requires power distributors and generators to get 18 percent of their electricity from alternative sources such as wind, solar or biofuels by 2021. Two nuclear power plants are scheduled to close in the near future, the Three Mile Island plant outside Harrisburg in September 2019 and the Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Station outside Pittsburgh in 2021. PA’s current 9 reactors at 5 plants provide 42% of the state’s electricity. Decommissioning these plants would increase carbon dioxide emissions.
- Marijuana legalization and expansion of medical cannabis – Since New York and New Jersey are likely to legalize recreational marijuana this year, Pennsylvania is taking another look at this issue, due to economic pressure from neighboring states. Governor Wolf has indicated he would sign this bill, but State Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman is opposed to the bill.
In New Jersey, hot issues also include the environment, fair pay and legalization. While a small minimum wage hike from $8.60 to $8.85 was achieved in 2018, Governor Phil Murphy failed to get the state legislature to pass the proposed $15/hour minimum wage or marijuana legalization that he had thought was a slam dunk. Both are being revisited in 2019.
- Minimum wage – A bill, introduced in December, calls for a gradual increase in the minimum wage to $15/hour. The concern is that the higher wage will put N.J. at a competitive disadvantage though people might engage in more discretionary spending.
- Earned sick leave – Regulations are proposed to a 2018 law requiring employers to allow eligible employees to accrue one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked. Certain of the guidelines contradict the original statute and could provoke legal challenges.
- Marijuana legalization – Legalization of recreational marijuana would include licensing production and sale of the substance and create the Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC) as an oversight organization. Outstanding issues include tax structure, how much power the CRC would have, and unionization of the industry.
- Wind power – N.J. became the biggest single-state solicitor of offshore wind energy last year and will seek to expand the program in 2020 and 2022. The goal of the legislation is to provide 3,500 megawatts of offshore wind by 2030. The program will create jobs, boost regional economy, and help mitigate the effects of climate change, according to BPU president Joseph L. Fiordaliso, as reported in Law 360.
While federal focus may have been diverted from these issues during the current administration, N.J. and Pennsylvania. at least are addressing these important liberal agenda items.