Capitol Report

The Pennsylvania State Capitol Building, in downtown Harrisburg.

Following is a listing of executive and legislative action for the week of April 15. Both houses of the General Assembly were in recess at press time. The Pennsylvania Senate and state House of Representatives are scheduled to return to session April 29.

Sexual Abuse

The state House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill aimed at bolstering criminal investigations into sexual abuse by making clear that nondisclosure agreements do not prevent individuals from communicating with law enforcement officials.

House Bill 1171, sponsored by state Rep. Tarah Toohil, R-Luzerne, was spurred by a recommendation from the statewide grand jury report on clergy sexual abuse of minors, which was released last year.

The grand jury found that several Catholic dioceses used confidentiality agreements to prevent accusers from speaking out publicly. Those agreements also deterred accusers from cooperating with law enforcement.

“There are victims out there in Pennsylvania who have these nondisclosure agreements and they believe they are still unable to come forward,” Toohil said. “As a result of this legislation, it will be clearly stated in the law that victims are able to provide information to law enforcement regarding their abuse, even if such an agreement is in place.”

The bill is one of several placed on the calendar by the GOP leadership in the state House, which has pledged to use April to advance crime victim rights.

The measure now moves to the Pennsylvania Senate for consideration.

Rebuilding Infrastructure

A massive rebuilding plan funded through a severance tax will address townships’ needs through funding vital, local infrastructure projects, said Gov. Tom Wolf on April 15 in a speech to local government officials.

Wolf’s initiative, branded as Restore Pennsylvania, has the goal of investing $4.5 billion over the next four years in significant, high-impact projects that, Wolf said, would help catapult Pennsylvania ahead of every state in the country in terms of technology, development and infrastructure.

“As community leaders, we all know that investment brings more investment, but in some of our townships, it’s hard to get that momentum going,” Wolf said. “With $4.5 billion in funds, Restore Pennsylvania can make strategic investments like this across our commonwealth. Allowing communities of all sizes to leverage underused assets to draw even more investment.”

Wolf said the program would focus on high-speed internet access, storm preparedness and disaster recovery, downstream manufacturing, business development, energy infrastructure, demolition, revitalization and renewal, and transportation capital projects.

State Amphibian

Pennsylvania is getting an official amphibian, a nocturnal salamander that can grow to be more than two feet long, The Associated Press reported.

The House voted 191-6 Tuesday to grant the honor to the Eastern hellbender, and Gov. Tom Wolf’s office said he plans to sign it.

The path to legislative recognition was not smooth, as the Eastern hellbender faced a stiff challenge from Wehrle’s salamander.

Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, who helped shepherd the bill through the House, said hellbenders had been on the decline.

“Not many people have actually seen hellbenders,” Everett said after the vote. “They live only in very clean streams, and they live under rocks.”

Members of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s student leadership council began the campaign to designate it as the state’s official amphibian, and their efforts were aided by Lycoming College’s Clean Water Institute.

Hellbenders do not have federal protected status, and while some states give them protected status, Pennsylvania does not.

They are the largest North American amphibian, with a colorful set of nicknames that include mud devil, devil dog, ground puppy, snot otter, lasagna lizard and Allegheny alligator.

Wehrle’s salamander, which is common, is named after the late naturalist R.W. Wehrle, of Indiana, Pennsylvania.