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Pension, gambling laws among Legislature session highlights

November 16, 2018

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania state lawmakers wrapped up their session this week with the election of caucus leaders and farewell speeches by departing colleagues, closing the book on two years that produced nearly 250 new laws.

Their most high-profile debate , however, ended inconclusively when Senate Republicans blocked a proposal supported by the GOP-controlled House and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf to allow victims of child sexual abuse to sue perpetrators or institutions over claims that would otherwise be too old to pursue under current law.

Wolf’s vetoes canceled legislation on public debt, abortion restrictions, price gouging and agricultural education.

A proposal to impose a severance tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling passed the Senate but stalled in the House, while the opioid crisis, school safety and domestic violence became the subject of several new laws.

Among the 2017-18 session’s legislative highlights:

PENSION REFORM

Future hires in public schools and state government are getting reduced retirement benefits under a landmark pension overhaul law.

The new plans start to take effect for those hired in 2019, including judges or lawmakers who start their service after that date. The changes will save billions over the coming decades for the underfunded programs.

New hires will choose from among plans that include a 401(k)-style benefit. The traditional pension benefit is shrinking by more than one-third.

The retirement age is rising from 65 to 67 and pension benefits are tied to five years of salary, instead of three years, to smooth out spikes driven by overtime or other salary changes that can inflate pension benefits.

The legislation exempts law enforcement categories, or about a third of state workers, including state troopers, prison guards and game wardens.

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE

The state’s first anti-violence legislation in more than a decade that deals directly with guns was enacted , requiring people convicted of misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence or subject to protective orders to give up their guns within 24 hours. Gun owners subject to protection from abuse orders can no longer give their weapons to family members or friends. Instead, they must be handed over to police, a gun dealer or lawyer.

Another law will help guide judges setting bail for defendants charged with domestic abuse.

CRIMINAL RECORDS SEALED

Lower-level, nonviolent crimes in Pennsylvania will automatically be sealed from public review after 10 years under a new state law. The “clean slate” legislation also seals records of arrests that did not result in convictions. The convictions are not expunged, and records of them will still be available to police, courts and prosecutors.

Access to all summary convictions that are 10 years old will be restricted, as long as the defendant has fulfilled court-ordered obligations.

The state will no longer suspend drivers’ licenses for those convicted of drug offenses unrelated to driving, and the use of DNA evidence for those already convicted is being expanded.

HAZING

The death of a Penn State fraternity pledge inspired lawmakers and Wolf to toughen criminal penalties for hazing and allow courts to confiscate fraternity houses where hazing has occurred. Schools must maintain anti-hazing policies and reporting hazing incidents. Hazing incidents that result in severe injury or death are now classified as felonies. A “safe harbor” provision lets people avoid prosecution if they seek help for victims of hazing incidents.

HUMAN TRAFFICKING

Child victims of human trafficking cannot be prosecuted for crimes they are compelled to commit under a new law that also requires police to contact the state Department of Human Services whenever they encounter a child who has been sexually exploited. The Department of Human Services also must establish ways to provide victims with homes, schooling, training and counseling.

ORGAN DONATION

A rewrite of the state’s organ donation bill makes a number of changes aimed at improving survival rates for transplant patients. It allows people with powers of attorney to give permission for organs to be donated and creates a new procedure for determining the organ and tissue donation intentions of a dying person if their wishes aren’t clear. Coroners who deny the donation of all of a person’s organs must review the clinical findings of procedures performed at the hospital and provide a written statement explaining the reason for the denial.

DUI PENALTIES

Repeat DUI offenders face tougher new penalties, including the state’s first felony for driving under the influence, for those with a third conviction for driving with at least twice the legal limit of alcohol, or for all fourth-time offenders. The law also includes longer mandatory jail time for unintentionally causing the death of another person as a result of a repeat DUI violation.

CASINO GAMBLING

The state’s gambling industry is expanding under a law that allows up to 10 new mini-casinos, sports betting, slot machine-style games at truck stops and online casino-style gambling.

ANIMAL ABUSE

Libre’s Law, named for a dog who suffered severe abuse and became a symbol for the need for reform, increased penalties, putting abusers at risk of felony convictions and fines of at least $500.

It imposes new guidelines for tethering dogs, requires owners to give them access to shade and water when outside and bars owners from keeping dogs outside for longer than half an hour in potentially dangerous weather conditions.

Police were granted legal authority to force their way into vehicles to rescue dogs and cats they believe are in danger. The legislation generally immunizes police, humane officers and other emergency responders from being sued for removing the animals. They must first make a reasonable effort to find the owner and have to leave a note saying who they are, who they work for and how the owner can retrieve their pet.

ABORTION

A proposal to prohibit abortions when the sole reason is that the fetus has or may have Down syndrome passed the state House, but was not acted on in the Senate.

Wolf also vetoed a bill to limited abortions to the first 20 weeks of pregnancy and, according to opponents, outlawed the most common method of second-trimester abortion. Planned Parenthood said it would have been the country’s most restrictive abortion law.

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