Pennsylvania Senate clears plate with slew of votes, heads home until after November election



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HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — The Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Senate closed up shop Thursday until after the Nov. 4 election, clearing the table with a slew of votes, including one on a bill that hit on the hot-button issue of guns.

The Senate's blizzard of votes often packaged unrelated legislation into the same bill to speed the process.

One bill would broaden the definition of who can challenge local gun-control ordinances in court, the latest fight over tension between cities that are seeking ways to curb gun violence and a state Legislature that has resisted new forms of gun control.

Backed by the National Rifle Association, the bill would allow "membership organizations" to stand in for any Pennsylvania member who is "adversely affected" by an illegal local gun-control ordinance. The challenger could seek damages.

Senators from the Philadelphia area have complained that the proposal gives special license to the NRA to push its agenda in Pennsylvania courts at the expense of local taxpayers.

"This bill was done for one purpose, and one purpose only, and that is to punish and intimidate," Sen. Lawrence Farnese, D-Philadelphia, said during floor debate.

Supporters did not defend the bill during floor date, but it passed 34-14. The NRA has complained that dozens of municipalities have illegal gun laws on their books, but they go unchallenged by residents who can prove that they were harmed by it.

The bill goes back to the House, which returns Monday.

Many other bills are going to Gov. Tom Corbett's desk.

The Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill to create a prescription drug-dispensing database. The aim is cracking down on substance abuse, but civil libertarians warn that it is an invasion of privacy that could hurt innocent people.

"This bill is not the total solution to the drug problem in our communities, but it is a vital piece of the puzzle," said Sen. Patricia Vance, R-Cumberland.

It would apply to prescriptions for drugs from morphine to cough syrup. Under it, dispensers and pharmacists must submit the name, date of birth, gender and address for the person seeking the drug, plus other information.

They must check the database each time a person comes to them for the first time seeking a prescription, or if they believe someone may be abusing or diverting the drugs. The state attorney general's office would have access to the database.

Another bill that passed is designed to help financially struggling municipalities get state help sooner, and overhaul the state's program for distressed cities to ensure that municipalities spend no more than eight years in it, even if the state takes it over or disincorporates it.

"It really brings clarity and focus and direction to the decisions that have to be made in order to change the trajectory" of a struggling municipality, said Sen. John Blake, D-Lackawanna. "Too many cities linger too long (in the program), and too many head toward distress without help from the state."

Senators unanimously passed a bill that would prohibit the eviction of renters who contact police about domestic violence. Supporters say some municipal ordinances allow landlords to evict tenants who call the police a certain number of times.

The Senate also passed a bill prompted by Mumia Abu-Jamal's pre-recorded commencement address to graduates of Goddard College in Vermont earlier this month.

Under the bill, prosecutors or victims of a personal injury crime can seek an injunction or other court-ordered relief when an offender's conduct "causes a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish." Opponents called the measure a violation of constitutionally protected free speech, but it passed 37-11.

Abu-Jamal is serving life in prison for the 1981 shooting death of Philadelphia police Officer Daniel Faulkner.

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