National Drivers Test

Transportation Commission’s Final Report to be Delivered to Governor

Two weeks after the governor’s Transportation Funding Advisory Commission voted on its package of funding and modernization recommendations, the final report is about to be delivered to Governor Tom Corbett.  Phased in over five years, the recommendations are designed to provide an annual $2.5-billion dollar shot in the arm for transportation funding in the Keystone State.  Previous commissions have pegged Pennsylvania’s transportation funding crisis to be $3-billion dollars a year. 

It’s important that Pennsylvania is taking its transportation woes into its own hands, according to Joshua Schank at the Washington DC-based Eno Transportation Foundation.  Schank says states can’t rely on the federal Highway Trust Fund for help.  “The primary reason is that it’s traditionally been funded through the federal gas tax, which is 18.4-cents per gallon and has not been increased since 1993.”

PennDOT Logo

PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch chaired the governor's Transportation Funding Advisory Commission.

The Transportation Funding Advisory Commission never considered a hike in the state’s gas tax.  Chairman and PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch likens the gasoline tax to chasing one’s tail.  “If you increase it, you know that fuel consumption is going to go down in the future, so you’d have to increase it substantially to make up for that difference,” Schoch said back in June.  

PennDOT Vehicle Registration Sticker

The Transportation Funding Advisory Commission recommends indexing driver and vehicle fees to inflation.

One high-profile recommendation that will appear in the report is the removal of the state’s cap on the wholesale taxes paid by the oil companies.  The Commission also recommends an increase in the vehicle and driver fees, which would index them to the rate of inflation.  All together, the recommendations could result in PA drivers doling out an additional $132-dollars a year.  However officials say those are conservative estimates, based on the entire impact of un-capping the Oil Franchise Tax being passed onto consumers.  PennDOT spokesman Dennis Buterbaugh tells Radio PA that’s unlikely to happen. 

Many in Harrisburg are anxiously awaiting Governor Tom Corbett’s reaction to the report.  Corbett says tapping the 40-member commission was the first step in a “reasoned approach” to the transportation funding problem.  “As I call it, ready, aim, fire; not ready, fire, aim,” Corbett said on the July edition of “Ask the Governor.”  The report’s recommendations would require legislative action.

Keystone State Games Underway

Keystone State Games5,000 amateur athletes have descended on the Hershey-Harrisburg region or the 30th annual Keystone State Games.  This is the third time they’ve welcomed athletes from all 67-counties.  “We are an Olympic-style sports festival.  We are Pennsylvania’s largest annual sports festival.  From where we started in 1981, we’ve had over 300,000 participants,” says James Costello, director of events. 

The mission is to promote physical fitness as a health improvement strategy, and to drive what amateur athletic competition is all about.  “To really put in the sportsmanship, the work ethic that goes into amateur sports,” Costello adds. 

He says the games welcome a wide range of ages too: “We start at age six in our wrestling… and it goes all the way up to 99-years-old in our track and field competition.”  However, most participant are scholastic athletes, in high school or college.   

The 2011 Keystone State Games started on Tuesday and will continue through Sunday.  You’ll find everything from handball to hockey when you check the live score updates online

This week’s winners will be eligible for the State Games of America, which will be coming to the Hershey-Harrisburg region in the summer of 2013.  “Throughout the country, any athlete who places in the top three positions, within the next two years, is automatically eligible to compete in the national competition.”

It’s a Buyer’s Market; But Home Buyer Satisfaction is Down

Between low prices and low interest rates, you would expect home buyer satisfaction to be high.  That’s generally true – but it’s not as high as it was in last year’s JD Power and Associates survey.  “There are still some challenges out there for the buyer.  Namely they have to get funds, they have to get a loan,” says Jim Howland, JD Power’s senior director of the real estate and construction practice.  “In many cases they are also selling a dwelling as well.  So, things generally aren’t rosy for all of them, even in this period.” 

While home buyer satisfaction is down, in the JD Power and Associates study, home seller satisfaction is up.  Higher scores for the so-called “marketing factor” account for the biggest gains.  “That’s any online marketing that was done, any open houses, in person, print, that kind of thing,” Howland says.

On JD Power’s 1,000 point scale, home buyer satisfaction comes in at 797, which is still higher than home sellers’ score of 779.  “RE/MAX ranked highest in both categories this time around, which is kind of a first for them, and a bit of news,” Howland explains.  However, the scores of all the top real estate companies are comparable.  This is the 4th year for the JD Power and Associates Home Buyer/Seller Study.   

The JD Power study preceded this week’s news, from the National Association of Realtors that, that pending home sales were up for the second straight month.  However, that’s not enough to give analysts hope that the housing market is on the rebound.  Also, new numbers from Freddie Mac show average mortgage rates inching upward, but still just 4.55%.

Christman Blog: The Cut & Paste Campaign of 2011

“On what legal, moral and/or ethical basis has the administration decided not to provide pay raises for approximately 13,000 non-union State Employees for going on 4-years while providing approximately 14% in pay increases for Unionized State Workers, Legislators, and some Non-Unionized (on ST Pay Schedules) over this same time period?”

    The wording has been identical as the emails on this particular topic pour in for Governor Tom Corbett. Even the improper capitalizations have been copied letter-for-letter. Yes, the non-union state employees are livid, and there’s an organized effort to get their message to the Governor.

    Now, these are folks who work hard and are legitimately frustrated as they watch union employees (often subordinates) get pay raises through their union contracts while their own salaries remain stagnant in these tough times. It’s been going on for several years and some managers now say they’re making less money than some of their employees. They’re mad, and they’re emailing us at demanding an answer from the governor.

    As regular visitors to can tell you, we’ve been in front of this issue and have already discussed it with Governor Corbett. As such, we don’t plan on devoting more time in the coming programs rehashing a subject we already covered. For those who missed it, here are the Governor’s comments on this subject from July 12th. Of particular note, the Governor said he’s hoping to see this situation begin to resolve itself next year, but as we all know, there just wasn’t any money for non-union pay raises (and a bunch of other things) in his first budget this year. There’s nothing that can be done for now, so the issue will likely remain on the side burner until the Governor’s next budget address in about 6 months. For the angry and organized masses, that should be your next email rally point.

    Until then, all I can offer is a “misery loves company” answer. For those who have suffered through several years of frozen salaries and wages, you have to know that you’re not alone. Many people are just barely keeping their heads above water, but others all over Pennsylvania are still drowning. There is something to the sage advice about appreciating what you have rather than focusing too much on what you want. Many people out there would do anything for a well-paying job with benefits, and future pay raises wouldn’t factor into their happiness quotient one bit as long as they could put food on their family’s table now.

    While we won’t be spending much more on-air time with the Governor on this matter this year, I will promise to personally place your emails in his hand when he is here for his next scheduled taping on August 11th, and yes, this will be an issue we dive back into when the time is right.


Capitol Hearing Kicks-Off Privatization Debate

Pennsylvania Liquor Store

The Number of Retail Liquor Outlets Would Roughly Double Under Rep. Turzai's Privatization Plan

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) was the only testifier on the Liquor Control Committee’s agenda Thursday, but Chairman John Taylor (R-Philadelphia) stressed that this hearing was the first of many.  “The goal of Chairman Santoni and I is to get the information on the table, and have everybody have the opportunity to have their say,” Taylor said. 

The committee is expected to receive additional testimony during a series of statewide hearings.  Taylor said each additional hearing will likely focus on one particular area of the privatization debate, such as fiscal impact, consumer impact and/or social impact. 

Dante Santoni

State Rep. Dante Santoni (D-Berks)

Minority Chairman Dante Santoni (D-Berks) welcomed the public vetting process.  “I expect that what we will learn is that our current system, with some changes under the umbrella of the PLCB, can address the concerns of most Pennsylvanians,” Santoni said, suggesting that the numbers behind privatization wouldn’t add up in the end. 

Rep. Turzai says the auctioning off of 1,250 retail liquor licenses would generate significant upfront revenue, but emphasized that it’s time to move into the 21st century. “Should the entity promoting wine & spirits be the same entity that polices those sales?  Doesn’t that inherently constitute a conflict of interest?”

Turzai went into great detail on his bill, which is reportedly 100-pages long, though it wasn’t publicly posted as of Wednesday afternoon.  Union members – who oppose privatization – were well represented in the capitol hearing room, just as they were at Rep. Turzai’s news conference earlier this month

Back in June, the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute asked Pennsylvania voters about the liquor store privatization issue, in the context of balancing the state budget.  69% of Pennsylvanians supported the idea.

Mummies are a Hit in Philadelphia

After barely a month on display at The Franklin Institute, in Philadelphia, Mummies of the World – The Exhibition has drawn visitors from all 50-states and 20-countries.  “Truly the statistics are astounding,” says Troy Collins, senior vice president of programs marketing and development at The Franklin Institute.  He says it’s a testament to both the exhibition and the city.  “Philadelphia remains a top destination not only for domestic, but for international visitors as well.” 

Tourism was up in Philadelphia, last year, both domestic and international.

Mummies of the World

Mummies of the World -- The Exhibtion

The visitors are being drawn to the largest exhibition of mummies and related artifacts ever assembled.  “The exhibit explores mummification from far beyond the Egyptian standpoint,” Collins says.  In fact, it includes specimens from South America, Europe and Asia too.  The ticketed event opened at The Franklin Institute on June 18th, and will run through October 23rd.  If you plan on attending note that time slots do sell out in advance, so Collins recommends online reservations.

Mummies of the World is in the midst of an exclusive seven-city, three-year US tour.  It started in Los Angeles last July and will head to Charlotte, NC next. 

(Photo credits: Darryl Moan (insert) and Lippisches Landesmuseum, Detmold, Germany (banner))

Study Examines Rural Health Care Challenges

A UnitedHealth Group / Harris Interactive survey, of 1,000 doctors and 2,000 consumers, finds that rural Americans tend to be older, poorer and sicker than their urban counterparts.  “They tend to be more reliant on programs such as Medicare and Medicaid and they have more chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease,” says Dr. Lew Sandy, senior vice president for clinical advancement at UnitedHealth Group. 

In addition to its health issues, rural America already has a problem with access to care.  “The resources available to care for rural Americans are really under significant strain now, and they’re going to be under more strain as [federal] health reform unfolds,” Dr. Sandy says.  The study finds that by 2019, there could be an increase of nearly 8-million rural Americans enrolled in Medicaid and state health insurance exchanges.  “Among the 300,000 primary care physicians in the US, only about 11% practice in the rural areas.”

Where will these patients turn for care?  With no clear answer, Dr. Sandy says now is the time to get started on modernizing the rural health care system.  That starts, he says, with recruiting and retaining rural physicians.  Dr. Sandy also believes that advancements in telemedicine are ripe for revolutionizing rural health care.  “With the advances in information technology that permit care being delivered over the Internet… we think these kinds of technologies can wipe out the barriers of time, space and distance that rural Americans face.”

PA Budget Debate

Toomey: Prioritize Debt Service

Pat Toomey Official Portrait

US Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA)

With one week to go before America’s August 2nd debt ceiling deadline, Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) is drumming up support for a fallback plan.  At a Capitol Hill news conference, Toomey introduced the Full Faith and Credit of the United States and Protecting America’s Soldiers and Seniors Act.  “What our bill would do is it would instruct the Treasury secretary, in the event the debt ceiling is not raised prior to August 2nd, to make certain obligations priority so that they will be paid in full, on time and without delay,” Toomey stated.     

The legislation would prioritize the interest on America’s debt, Social Security payments and the payroll for active duty military personnel.  By placing interest payments atop that list, Toomey says the nation would not default on its debt, and not plunge into economic chaos.  “This bill is not and is not meant to be a substitute for raising the debt limit,” Toomey said.  “What this bill is all about is minimizing whatever disruption might otherwise occur if the debt limit is not raised prior to August 2nd.”

This comes the day after President Barack Obama and US House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) held dueling primetime television appearances.  “The American people may have voted for a divided government, but they didn’t vote for a dysfunctional government,” the President chided.  But, Speaker Boehner says the President won’t accept ‘yes’ for an answer.  “Even when we thought we might be close to an agreement, the President’s demands changed,” rebuked Boehner. 

That back-and-forth among Washington’s biggest powerbrokers set the stage for Toomey’s Tuesday news conference.  “At this late stage in the process, it’s obvious now to everybody that it is possible – increasingly possible – that we will not have raised the debt ceiling by August 2nd,” Toomey said.

If Congress fails to reach a compromise, and if there is a default on the nation’s debt, the credit rating agencies could downgrade America’s bond rating.  That, in turn, could lead to higher interest rates for everyone.  But, this is not entirely uncharted territory.  Senate historian Don Ritchie says the debt ceiling has been raised at least 80-times in recent history, and stalemates have become somewhat common since the 1980s.  “At some point they’ve always managed to work out an arrangement, even though there were quite often stark differences of opinion between the two sides,” Ritchie said, providing at least some reason for optimism.

Bill Would Tie Driver’s License to Restitution

A state lawmaker has introduced a bill that would add some teeth to the law for restitution in driving-related cases.    Once court costs and state fines on a driver related offense have been paid, a driver’s license can’t be suspended according to state Representative Keith Gillespie.  He wants to allow the courts to be able to suspend a license if full restitution has not been made to the victim as ordered in traffic cases.

Gillespie says a lot of people fail to pay full restitution to the victim after paying their fines and court costs.  His bill would mandate that the driver pay the victim restitution in full or face the possibility of having their license suspended.

Gillespie says this would give the Clerk of Courts and the court system another tool to work with, to convince people who have broken the law to pay their responsibility back to society and to the victim.

Gillespie says the issue was brought to his attention by the York Court Clerk of Courts. He says Donald O’Shell felt a message needed to be sent to help with reestablishing full compensation to the victims.

House bill 1617 has been referred to the House Transportation Committee.

Some Call for Special Session on Marcellus Shale

Map of the Marcellus Shale

It’s been three years of discussion and debate, but there’s been no comprehensive action on Marcellus Shale issues in Harrisburg.  Now with a series of consensus recommendations from the governor’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission in hand, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) is calling for a special session this fall.  “We feel that there is now no reason not to enact these changes to the Oil and Gas Act,” says John Walliser, the PEC’s vice president for legal and governmental affairs. 

The Pennsylvania Environmental Council was represented on the 30-member commission, and participated in the unanimous vote in favor of the 96-recommendations.  “If you have the agreement among the different members participating on the report, we think there is every reason to get those enacted as soon as possible,” Walliser says. 

State Rep. Bud George

State Rep. Bud George

Agreeing with the PEC’s call for a special session is State Rep. Camille “Bud” George (D-Clearfield), the minority chairman of the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.  George says the commission’s recommendations are a good first step, but too vague.  “The commission gives us too many feel-good, unspecific generalities,” George said in an interview with Radio PA.

Rep. George has introduced legislation (HB 1800), which combines environmental protections with a Marcellus Shale severance tax.  It contains a number of recommendations made by the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission.  “But I make the land and water safeguards stronger,” George says. 

George is proposing a volume-based severance tax, which directs revenues toward local governments, environmental programs and infrastructure repair.  The bill, dubbed ProtectPA, would tax natural gas companies 30-cents per every 1,000 cubic feet of natural gas severed.  It has the support of top House Democrats, but will likely not be considered, because it is a tax. 

“I’m not against the gas people, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart,” George says.  But, the veteran lawmaker adds that his main concern is protecting Pennsylvania’s water.

Governor Tom Corbett has said he would not sign a severance tax, but has left the door open for an impact fee.  The commission’s 137-page report recommends such an impact fee, which would mitigate the impacts caused to local municipalities by natural gas drilling.