Op-Ed: There’s Always More We Can Do

By Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-33)

Reports of murders, robberies, car jackings and property destruction dominate headlines these days as Pennsylvania communities fall deeper into chaos and lawlessness.  Federal statistics show violent crimes reported across the state increased in 2021, outpacing the national average.

According to the 2022 State of Safety report, nearly half of Pennsylvanians say the COVID-19 pandemic affected their personal safety.

It’s a trend that’s repeated in a survey my office recently distributed asking residents to describe their concerns about rising crime. Many told me they feel less safe and blame drug addiction, above all else, for fueling the increase.

We recognize the layered and complex reasons people abuse drugs and commit crimes, though some triggers have been worse than others in recent years. Statistics from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities show roughly one third of Americans struggled to cover living expenses last year, while more than 20 million people worried about putting food on the table.

Opioid overdoses also spiked as isolation and desperation from prolonged pandemic restrictions kept families and friends apart. In 2021 alone, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said more than 100,000 people died across the country from fentanyl and opioid overdoses, a 15% increase over the year before. Pennsylvania ranks third nationwide for these fatalities.

The opioid epidemic has laid waste to this nation and Pennsylvania is clearly no exception. Fentanyl-laced drugs spill over our borders and find passage along a network of highways that reach every corner of the country. 

Over the summer, law enforcement in Oregon sounded the alarm over more potent rainbow-colored pills laced with fentanyl that began circulating along the West Coast. The alarming news proves exactly why drug dealers must pay for the lives they take every single day – something for which Pennsylvania’s existing laws fall woefully short.

Under the existing “drug delivery resulting in death” statute, defendants often cut deals for lenient sentencing and little to no jail time. It’s a horrific miscarriage of justice that allows dealers to walk away scot-free for callously profiting off the escalating opioid epidemic.

That’s why I introduced Tyler’s Law in June to impose mandatory 25-year minimum sentences for fentanyl distribution that results in death. It’s a necessary step to save lives and hold dealers accountable for the destruction and pain caused by their ruthless greed.

But it’s not just about punishing those who sell drugs. Thanks to the Overdose Mapping Act, which became law just this month, first responders – including law enforcement and emergency medical services – will now report overdoses into an electronic statewide system.

Standardizing use such a system will help local officials identify emerging trends, mobilize an emergency response and alert law enforcement and EMS to the existence of fentanyl-laced drugs in a particular region.

We can’t put out fires that we can’t see and consistently using a mapping tool like this will give our first responders the visibility they need to act quickly, save lives and make communities safer.

Although overdose mapping will be a game changer for our communities, it’s certainly not the end of what we, as lawmakers, can do to support our first responders on the front lines trying to save lives every day.

That’s why we established the $135 million Law Enforcement Recovery Grant Program in the 2022-23 budget to ensure police departments have the resources and staffing necessary to fight rising crime, tackle the opioid crisis and ease the mental and physical impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I championed the legislation this summer after months of raising awareness about the devastating impact the pandemic and anti-police sentiment had on recruitment, retention and crime prevention efforts. This investment will help our state get back onto a path of safety and prosperity, though admittedly, it will be an arduous journey.

And it’s one law enforcement can’t complete alone. That’s why I recently sponsored the Fighting Chance Act, which would reduce the obstacles individuals convicted for nonviolent offenses face when reentering society.

These people deserve a chance at economic security and freedom, which would reduce recidivism and lower the state’s overall crime rate. Overcoming poverty can end the destructive cycles that often spiral into drug addiction, illegal activity and violent crime.

And while I’m proud of the steps we’ve taken to address the systemic links between substance abuse and rising crime, I’m painfully aware there’s always so much more we can, and should, do.

Mastriano’s Overdose Mapping Act Becomes Law

HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania made a significant advancement in its fight against the opioid crisis this week when the Overdose Mapping Act became law, said Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-33).

“The opioid crisis takes lives every single day and Pennsylvania has been fighting it blind for a long time,” Mastriano said. “This law will give emergency responders the foresight they need to act quickly and prevent more deaths.”

Act 158, introduced by Mastriano earlier this year, requires first responders – including law enforcement and emergency medical services – to report overdoses into an electronic statewide system that will be developed and maintained in consultation with the Department of Health.

Standardizing use of a statewide system will help local officials identify emerging trends, mobilize an emergency response and alert law enforcement and EMS to the existence of fentanyl-laced drugs in a particular region.

In 2021 alone, the CDC said more than 100,000 people died nationwide from fentanyl and opioid overdoses, a 15% increase over the year before. Pennsylvania ranks third nationwide for overdose fatalities.

“Overdose mapping will be a game changer for our communities, none of which have been untouched by this epidemic,” Mastriano said. “And it’s certainly not the end of what we, as lawmakers, can do to support our first responders on the front lines trying to save lives every day.”

 

CONTACT: Doug Zubeck

Mastriano: Governor Signs Life-Saving Blue Lights Law

HARRISBURG – The governor signed legislation this week enacting the “Blue Lights Law” in Pennsylvania, Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-33) said.

“Countless lives will be saved thanks to this legislation and it was my honor to get it across the finish line,” Mastriano said. “It’s a simple fix that will make the roads safer for everyone.”

Mastriano sponsored Act 157 earlier this year after a tow truck driver in his district said other states with blue lights laws reported fewer accidents.

Under previous law, tow truck operators could only use flashing orange or yellow lights. Studies from the Texas Department of Transportation and the University of Michigan demonstrate that drivers routinely ignore the sight of these lights on the road, often resulting in fatal accidents.

“The flashing blue lights will no doubt give drivers more time to react, protecting both tow truck operators and the people in waiting in disabled vehicles on the side of the road,” Mastriano said. “I appreciate the administration’s support of this commonsense legislation and the urgency of the General Assembly to get it to his desk.”

 

CONTACT: Doug Zubeck

Pennsylvania Cruelty Laws Ignore Test Lab Animals

By Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-33)

Last week, we learned the strength of Pennsylvania’s animal cruelty laws rank 15th nationwide – representing a triumphant climb from the bottom 10 just eight years ago.

But we still have a long way to go before we reach the summit – and I intend to make sure we get there.

The cruelty inflicted on lab animals under the guise of medical experimentation, although around for decades, found its way back into headlines last year when members of Congress demanded answers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – and Dr. Anthony Fauci – about inhumane and unspeakable abuse inflicted on puppies and monkeys.

Researchers on South Carolina’s Morgan Island, for example, routinely inject up to 600 monkeys with debilitating viruses and withhold pain medication.

Reports also surfaced that at least 44 beagle puppies suffered and died after lab workers locked their heads in cages and allowed hungry sandflies to eat them alive. Others were injected with experimental drugs and all of them had vocal cords removed so workers wouldn’t be subjected to their pained cries.

This is torture – plain and simple – and Fauci’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases spent at least $1.68 million in taxpayer money to fund it.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund, which gave Pennsylvania its esteemed ranking, notes that data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration confirms just 8% of drugs tested on animals are deemed safe and effective for human use.

The organization also claims research labs experiment on more than 1 million animals across the United States annually. The NIH spends around $14.5 billion in public funding for these barbaric tests – and that figure doesn’t even consider costs borne by other federal agencies and private companies.

So, it’s equally disturbing to me that Pennsylvania’s existing animal cruelty statute exempts medical research labs, so long as they meet a short list of regulations deeming their facilities “lawful.”

Pennsylvania has taken massive strides to protect animals from cruelty, neglect and abuse that culminated in the landmark Libre’s Law in 2017. This comprehensive bill strengthened penalties against perpetrators of these sickening crimes, catapulting Pennsylvania from its dismal bottom 10 ranking at the time to 24th.

Since then, we’ve improved our standing even further. Now, it’s time we take the next big step to protect animals in this state from these torturous lab experiments – especially when safer, more humane options exist. That’s why I will soon introduce legislation banning scientific experiments on live domestic dogs and cats within Pennsylvania.

These painful and deadly procedures inflict unimaginable and never-ending pain on these animals that not even human beings can endure.  

This issue cuts across partisan lies, rises above sensationalism and demands action. Subjecting our domestic companions to this kind of suffering, distress and lasting harm has no place in Pennsylvania.

Mastriano: Blue Lights Law Heads to Governor’s Desk

HARRISBURG – Legislation legalizing rear-facing blue lights for tow-truck operators will soon head to the governor’s desk, Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-33) said today.

“This bill could cut down on roadside accidents and save lives,” Mastriano said. “Multiple studies show blue lights attract more attention and are far more visible in hazardous weather conditions. We can’t let something as simple as failing to use brighter lights lead to more deaths.”

Mastriano sponsored Senate Bill 1123 earlier this year after a tow truck driver in his district said other states with blue lights laws reported fewer accidents.

Under current law, tow truck operators can only use flashing orange or yellow lights. Studies from the Texas Department of Transportation and the University of Michigan demonstrate that drivers routinely ignore the sight of these lights on the road, often resulting in fatal accidents.

“The flashing blue lights will no doubt give drivers more time to react, protecting both tow truck operators and the people in waiting in disabled vehicles on the side of the road,” Mastriano said. “It’s a simple fix and we shouldn’t delay action on it any longer.”

The legislation now awaits the governor’s signature.

 

CONTACT: Doug Zubeck

What’s the Rush? Tell CDC the COVID-19 Vaccine Doesn’t Belong on Childhood Immunization Schedule

HARRISBURG – Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-33) urged residents to tell the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that COVID-19 vaccinations shouldn’t be included in the routine immunization schedule for children.

“The COVID-19 vaccine is experimental, at best, and may pose more risk to some children and teens than it does benefits,” Mastriano said. “Rushing to add this to the immunization schedule is not only dangerous, but could also disenfranchise millions of families if their kids are barred from school simply for refusing the vaccine.”

In September, the CDC advertised a two-day meeting and requested comments on its pending decision to recommend updating the childhood immunization schedule to include the COVID-19 vaccine. Today, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices convened to vote on this proposal – just one day ahead of the public comment period closing.

“Why is the CDC ignoring the science and rushing to recommend a vaccine that they, themselves, admit doesn’t prevent spread of the virus?” Mastriano said. “There’s enormous debate about the safety and efficacy of this vaccine, and yet, the country’s leading agency on disease prevention is tripping over itself to insist kids receive it – as if it’s as effective as immunizations to prevent polio, hepatitis or the measles.”

Medical experts and researchers have released multiple studies pointing to the ineffectiveness of the vaccine in preventing infection or transmission of the COVID-19 virus. Data from the CDC released in October notes more than 783,000 people sought care for adverse vaccine reactions, and preliminary reports suggest nearly 17,000 died.

Mastriano encourages all Pennsylvanians who object to this proposal to submit a public comment before 11:59 p.m. tonight to discourage the CDC from officially adopting this egregious policy.

 

CONTACT: Doug Zubeck

***Media Advisory*** Parental Bill of Rights Hearing on Tuesday, Oct. 18

Watch Live

HARRISBURG – The Senate State Government Committee will convene at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 18 to discuss legislation that will establish a Parental Bill of Rights in Pennsylvania, said Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-33).

“I sponsored Senate Bill 996 after watching government bureaucrats usurp the rights of parents and guardians to safeguard and direct their children’s upbringing,” Mastriano said. “If the last three years have taught us anything, it’s that we can longer take for granted the assumed rights we hold as parents.”

Testifiers include medical, legal and advocacy specialists who will share their valuable perspectives on the impact of Senate Bill 996 and its effectiveness in preserving parental rights. The entire agenda can be viewed here.

The committee also invited U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health Admiral Rachel Levine, who led Pennsylvania’s Department of Health from 2018 until 2021, to share her insights as a widely recognized authority in pediatric medicine.

“It is my sincere hope that Secretary Levine will join us for this important hearing,” Mastriano said. “Her public health experience, at both the state and federal level, will no doubt inform her testimony and offer insight into this issue in a way that few others can.”

The committee will convene at 10:30 a.m., following a voting meeting, in Hearing Room 1 at the State Capitol’s North Office Building in Harrisburg. The hearing will also be livestreamed at PASenateGOP.com.

 

CONTACT: Doug Zubeck

The Human Cost of the Governor’s Carbon Tax

By Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-33)

By now, just about everyone feels the squeeze of rising utility bills. It’s an inescapable reality, bolstered by ineffective domestic and foreign energy policies, a deepening economic crisis and mounting distrust in our government here at home.

Legislators warned this was coming. In June, and again in September, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) advised residents that electricity rates across the state would increase by double digits in some regions. This, just as the Commonwealth Court pressed pause on Pennsylvania’s entry into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), scheduled for July 1.

RGGI, as it’s often called, uses carbon taxes to artificially limit emissions from the power sector in 11 other states in the mid-Atlantic. Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration views its hasty entry into the program as the pinnacle of its climate legacy – a flimsy house of cards constructed without any input from the legislators tasked with representing Pennsylvania’s 13 million residents.

And all of this, despite zero concrete evidence RGGI actually reduces harmful greenhouse gas emissions in any meaningful way – and plenty of demonstrable negative economic impacts writ-large.

The most obvious consequence of RGGI is increased energy costs. Some electric companies have admitted these additional expenses are already baked into the newest base rates, recalculated every few months to reflect market conditions. Even the Department of Environmental Protection’s initial estimate of RGGI’s cost had to be revised upward by nearly 300% earlier this year.

Roughly 300 of my constituents reported, in a survey administered by our office, they’re struggling to pay their electricity bills, even during what electrical grid operators call a “shoulder season” – a period where milder weather reduces overall demand for heating and cooling.

The pain is borne out by data from the Center for Biological Diversity and the PUC. The latter confirmed the number of residents seeking payment plans for overdue utility bills spiked 158% this year alone.

Just 1% of the roughly 10,700 customers seeking service reconnection got approved for these plans – and only if their credit reports and payment histories passed muster. The process can take as long as seven days, during which time service could remain shut off. Electric companies disconnected more than 108,000 residents through June, representing a 10% increase over 2021.

Even worse, the PUC’s income limits for preventing shut-offs in the colder months mean customers earning more than $14 per hour don’t qualify for relief. That leaves a wide swath of residents on modest incomes choosing between heat and food in the dead of winter.

Many electric companies will soon announce revised customer rates and all signs point to more double-digit increases – and that’s before the court decides the fate of RGGI in Pennsylvania.

We are already paying the administration’s carbon tax and it’s not even officially enacted yet. How much worse will things get?

We must abandon these destructive energy policies built on nothing more than delusions of grandeur. We are losing jobs. We are losing communities. We are losing lives.

When will the human cost of progressive ideology be enough?

Op-Ed: Cash for Seniors? Pennsylvania’s Adult Guardianships Lack Oversight

By Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-33)

Lately, I’ve heard from distressed constituents who say that, ever year, Pennsylvania courts deem an untold number of senior citizens incompetent, imprison them in far-flung institutions and cut off their communication with the outside world, all for the sake of seizing billions of dollars from the estates they now control.

Don’t believe them? Annually, Pennsylvania collects estate funds worth roughly $2 billion after assuming guardianships for seniors. This, despite state laws and recommendations from the Department of Aging to pursue guardianship “as a last resort.”

The statistics regarding just how many seniors live under guardianships is unclear, according to a 2016 report on elder abuse from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched the National Adult Maltreatment Reporting System (NAMRS) to better track instances of abuse and neglect. A NAMRS analysis from 2020 reported nearly 38,000 instances of financial exploitation from across all 50 states. About 16% of those cases were substantiated, according to the report.

Overall, NAMRS investigated nearly 776,000 suspected cases of elder abuse and neglect, of which one-third were corroborated by evidence. About 14% of these victims lived in nursing homes or residential facilities when these investigations were first initiated.

Still skeptical? Take it from Katherine Johnson, the former administrator for the Area Agency on Aging in Westmoreland County, who told a congressional Special Committee on Aging in 2018 she knew of at least one guardianship agency that mismanaged the assets of one of its clients, resulting in the senior’s eviction from a personal care home and $25,000 in lost income over a 22-month period.

Despite this, Johnson testified, the agency continued collecting guardianship and attorney fees, while leaving a balance for life insurance unpaid and ignoring its responsibility to liquidate the senior’s assets.

Worst of all, despite this egregious conduct, this investigation closed after the allegations went unsubstantiated. Johnson said Westmoreland County courts stopped appointing the agency as a guardian, however.

And this is far from the only case of exploitation and neglect. My office has received reports from family members who say the state makes sweeping claims of incompetency, takes control of assets and sequesters the senior in a far-off facility. Some say their family members can’t call home, receive visits or go outside for fresh air.

Courts appear reluctant, or downright refuse, to grant hearings for appeals or appoint attorneys for the families seeking relief. Judges have no obligation to consider expert testimony, review medical records or contemplate other suitable placements for the senior citizen, no matter how hard the family protests.

Johnson, in her testimony, agreed that the state’s guardianship system fails on multiple fronts. We leave incapacitated residents, with few or no family members, “at the mercy of” whatever agency agrees to handle their assets and medical care.

There’s no checks and balances to monitor whether a guardian agency is performing the duties required. State-required reports of financial activity often go unfiled, while many of the agencies themselves operate without performing background checks, establishing minimum training requirements or withstanding oversight from regulators or courts.

While family members routinely abuse, neglect and exploit seniors, Johnson said the risk increases “exponentially” with professional guardianship agencies.

This situation warrants further investigation. Our senior citizens are some of the most vulnerable among us. Who, if not their guardians, will give them a voice?  Who is going to investigate this cruel scheme?

We’ve seen power structures in this state abuse their authority for financial gain before. The infamous “Cash for Kids” scandal revealed that judges in Luzerne County accepted $2.6 million in alleged kickbacks from two for-profit facilities for sending juvenile delinquents – many of whom were wrongly adjudicated – to their care.

Those involved were later found guilty on a litany of federal charges, leaving a scar on the state’s juvenile justice system and instigating reforms at the state level to prevent such an egregious abuse of power from happening again.

Except that it can happen again and maybe, it already has.

Pennsylvania’s Utility Disconnections Spike Amid Energy Affordability Crisis

By Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-33)

Pennsylvania earned a dubious distinction recently that underscores the economic pain wreaking havoc statewide for millions of residents struggling to make ends meet.

We, along with four other states, account for 69% of all 3.6 million utility disconnections between January 2020 and December 2021, according to a report from the Center for Biological Diversity.

It gets worse.

The number of residents seeking payment plans for overdue utility bills spiked 158% this year alone, according to data from the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC), amid unprecedented increases in energy costs doomed to climb even higher in the coming months.

Just 1% of the roughly 10,700 customers seeking service reconnection got approved for these plans – and only if their credit reports and payment histories passed muster. The process can take as long as seven days, during which times service could remain shut off. Electric companies disconnected more than 108,000 residents through June, representing a 10% increase over 2021.

Even worse still, the PUC’s income limits for preventing shut-offs in the colder months mean customers earning more than $14 per hour don’t qualify for relief. A Wall Street Journal analysis from December 2020 purports roughly half of families – of whom the report considers “middle class” – make between $26,000 and $122,000 annually.

That means the vast majority don’t fall under the PUC’s automatic shut-off moratorium and must overcome often insurmountable financial hurdles and additional charges to restore service during the dead of winter. It’s a recipe for disaster that will cause an untold number of preventable deaths and seal a fate many lawmakers, including myself, warned of when Gov. Tom Wolf began implementing short-sighted environmental policies via executive fiat.

The worst offender of Wolf’s climate legacy is the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s hurried effort to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). The program uses carbon taxes to artificially limit emissions from the power sector, awarding the Wolf administration brownie points among the progressive arm of the Democratic party while saddling utility customers with skyrocketing electricity costs during an unfolding economic crisis.

Earlier this year, the Independent Fiscal Office’s analysis confirmed RGGI would cost nearly four times more than the DEP first projected, quadrupling energy costs for utility companies. Despite the pause on Pennsylvania’s entry into RGGI amid a legal challenge, electric suppliers said the program’s impact accounted for some of the double-digit rate increases implemented on June 1.

It’s important to note here that the Center for Biological Diversity said this “massive wave” of power shut-offs across the country predated Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, though the resulting volatility in oil and gas prices only made utility bills more unaffordable.

The report also pointed to a dozen companies that instigated over 3 million disconnections in 2020 and 2021 that then increased shareholder payouts by $1.9 billion. At least two of those suppliers, Exelon and First Energy, operate in Pennsylvania.

Colder weather is right around the corner and so, too, are guarantees that energy costs will keep climbing. Geopolitical instability coupled with skewed energy policies at the state and federal level mean residents will struggle to heat their homes and keep the lights on this winter.

All the while, shareholders will grow richer and their government friends will continue subsidizing tax breaks for greener technologies – like electric cars and solar panels – that few can afford.

It’s unconscionable that electricity rates in Pennsylvania, one of the nation’s top energy producers, have grown so wildly unaffordable that our residents can’t keep up anymore. The Wolf administration owns this policy failure and would rather sacrifice lives than admit its mistake – and that’s not hyperbole

We must abandon RGGI and focus on policies that support Pennsylvania’s energy production, create jobs and raise incomes so Pennsylvanians can thrive – not merely survive – in the years to come.

Senator Doug Mastriano represents Pennsylvania’s 33rd district in Adams and Franklin counties.