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PennDOT Vehicle Registration Sticker

Transportation Commission Works Toward August Goal

The Transportation Funding Advisory Commission, created by Governor Tom Corbett’s executive order, is on pace to submit recommendations by August 1st.  PennDOT spokesman Dennis Buterbaugh says the objective is to find another $2-billion to $2.5-billion dollars to annually inject into Pennsylvania’s transportation infrastructure.  That’s the majority of an annual $3-billion dollar transportation funding gap that was identified in a previous study.

So what is the commission discussing?  “It can be something as small as eliminating the annual registration sticker on your license plate.  That can save the Commonwealth some money.  Many states have taken that step,” Buterbaugh tells us.  Another simple step that may be recommended involves the drivers license renewal process.  “Currently the drivers license time is four years.  There’s been talk about possibly extending that, because there’s a cost savings to the Commonwealth,” Buterbaugh adds.

As far as big ticket items go, Buterbaugh confirms the commission did hear a presentation on the possible tolling of Route 422 in the southeast.  Tolling may or may not be a part of the recommended solution.  “But the Commission is not going to make any decision on any specific route”

A hike in the gas tax appears to be off-the-table.  “The gasoline tax is a little bit like chasing your tail,” PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch recently said.  Schoch is also chairman of the governor’s commission.  Their next meeting is set for June 27th in Harrisburg.

Governor Tom Corbett Addresses Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce

Governor Tom Corbett Not Budging on Surplus Issue

Through the first eleven months of the fiscal year, the Department of Revenue reports that collections have outpaced expectations to the tune of $540-million dollars.  Many lawmakers are ready to tap into that money to mitigate some of the proposed budget cuts.  However, Governor Tom Corbett isn’t ready to use the “S” word… surplus.  “I don’t know how you have a surplus when we know that Pennsylvania – because of the recession, because of the number of people who lost jobs – had to borrow money from the federal government, [and] owes the federal government $3.7-billion dollars as we sit here today.” 

Governor Corbett’s comments came on Radio PA’s monthly Ask the Governor program, which is featured here in PAMatters.com.  Corbett said he’s sticking to the $27.3-billion dollar framework he laid out during his March 8th budget address: “That allows everybody to plan based upon that number, and to make the difficult cuts, and I wish they didn’t have to make those cuts.  I don’t want to have to make those cuts, but it’s necessary to get our house in order.” 

Corbett has come under fire in recent months for the education cuts he’s proposed for next year’s budget.  “We didn’t do this lightly, we’re not being hard-hearted about this, but we have a $4.2-billion dollar hole in the budget,” Corbett says, referring to the structural deficit that exists in large part to the expiration of the federal stimulus program.  Corbett points out that basic education has been held at pre-stimulus levels (see insert). 

Basic Ed. Funding Chart

House Republicans’ budget bill would restore $100-million dollars to the basic education funding line item, and account for an additional $380-million dollars for higher education.  Governor Corbett’s original budget plan would have slashed funding for the State System of Higher Education, and State Related universities, in half.  But House Republicans didn’t add to the $27.3-billion dollar bottom line – they instead trimmed an additional $470-million dollars in welfare spending.  Asked about those projections, Corbett was skeptical: “Do I believe we’re going to find savings in the Department of [Public] Welfare?  Yes.  Am I going to find it at the rate, at the number and at the speed that we need to for one fiscal year?  I have grave concerns about that.  I’m a very cautious person.” 

Corbett, House and Senate leaders will flesh out their budget priorities in the weeks ahead, in hopes of meeting the June 30th budget deadline.  If successful, it would be the first on-time state budget in eight years.

June 11th is “Get Outdoors Day”

This Saturday (June 11) is “Get Outdoors Day”.   Surveys show that kids spend 50% less time outdoors than they did 20 years ago according to Jim Hubbard, Deputy Chief for the U. S. Forest Service

Hubbard says they want families to reconnect and experience nature. He says just being there is worth it.  He says people will experience what it’s like to stand on a trail in the trees or listen to birds and streams.

Hubbard says there are other benefits as well, such as stress reduction.  He says environmental awareness is also part of the campaign.

Hubbard says if you can’t take part in an activity scheduled for “Get Outdoors Day”, then just visit a national, state or local park. You can also just go outdoors near your home and take a walk.

Hubbard says there are special activities across the country on Saturday.  You can find a list of events near your home at discovertheforest.org.

In Pennsylvania, events are taking place at Bald Eagle, Moraine, Parker Dam and Pine Grove Furnace state parks. The state has 117 state parks and 2.2 million acres of state forestland. You can get more information on events at state parks at www.dcnr.state.pa.us/Calendar

Governor Tom Corbett has proclaimed June as Great Outdoors Month in Pennsylvania. 

Boating at Moraine State Park

PA School Districts

Bill Aimed at Preventing Teacher Strikes Would Not Include an Outright Ban

One package of bills has been introduced to ban teacher strikes in Pennsylvania.  But   there’s another plan that would not go that far.  The “Back to Educating Our Kids” act would require negotiations between teachers and school districts to start earlier, dividing the process into negotiation, fact finding, mediation and arbitration. 

 If talks move to arbitration under the proposal, a decision would come well before the start of a school year and both sides would have ten days to accept the decision or reach an agreement. If there’s no final deal, Representative Steve Santarsiero (D-Bucks) says there would be penalties. Teachers could lose the right to strike and school districts could have state funding put in escrow until a deal is reached.

The measure, HB 1660, would also prohibit strikes and lockouts from the beginning of the negotiation process through the 10 day post-arbitration decision period.

Santarsiero, a former teacher, says  the act is designed to provide incentives for both sides to settle teacher contract disputes.  He says the problem with simply outlawing teacher strikes, is that it does not resolve what can be a festering contract dispute.

Representative Bernie O’Neill (R-Bucks) was a special education teacher in a district where he was once locked out in a contract dispute.  He supports the bill, saying he thinks it’s fair and puts responsibility on both sides of the aisle.

Representative Thomas Murt (R-Montgomery) is a former teacher and a former school board member.  Having seen the situation from both sides, he told Representative Santarsiero the bill is a step in the right direction. Murt said prolonged collective bargaining negotiations and strikes can cripple a child’s educational progress.  He says the act would address the situation by requiring teachers and school districts to begin negotiating sooner.

Pennsylvania Education Secretary says Educator Evaluation Results Show Need for Change

Education Secretary Ron Tomalis

Pennsylvania’s  education secretary says the results of teacher and principal evaluations in the 2009-10 school year in Pennsylvania raise serious concerns about the quality of the evaluation system.   Ron Tomalis says he has great concerns about a system that ranks nearly 100% of the educators as satisfactory, when one out of four of the students in Pennsylvania are not performing at grade level. 

Tomalis says the Corbett administration is proposing an aggressive and rigorous evaluation system. Half of the proposed evaluation would be  based on how well students are doing in the classroom, the rest would be determined by how well the teacher manages the class, how prepared they are and how knowledgeable they are on content.  

 Tomalis says Pennsylvania spends $700 million a year on professional development. He says they want to make sure that money is properly targeted.

Tomalis says the goal is not necessarily to remove struggling teachers from the classroom; they first want to see that these teachers can get the resources and assistance needed to get them up to speed,  where they will have a positive impact on student achievement.

Tomalis says the current evaluation system is a one-size-fits-all approach.

Tomalis says it doesn’t matter what class size you have, how much money is spent per pupil or how many computers there are in the classroom.  He says if you have a highly effective teacher, you’ll have a greater impact than all those other factors.

The goal is to start rolling out a new evaluation system in the 2012-2013 school year.

State Capitol Facing North Office Building

Senate Approves Drivers Cell Phone Ban

Texting While Driving

Texting While Driving Would be a Primary Offense Under SB 314

Texting while driving would be a primary offense.  Talking on a hand-held cell phone while driving would be a secondary offense, under legislation that passed the State Senate Wednesday afternoon.  It started out as a simple secondary offense texting ban, but Tommy Tomlinson’s bill was amended in committee to include hand-held cell phones and other language.  On the floor, Senator Jim Ferlo (D-Allegheny) was successful in changing the texting violation to a primary offense, which means it can be the sole reason a driver is stopped by police.  Violators would face a $100-dollar fine.    

“I personally argue that the whole bill should be a primary offense,” Ferlo tells us, “But I’m in the minority on this issue, so I thought it was tactically appropriate to try to win majority support… on the issue of text messaging.”  The Senate vote was 41 – 8 on the bill, as amended.  Senator Tomlinson (R-Bucks) supports the bill in its current form, but knows the process isn’t over.  “I don’t believe this is the final version of this bill.  I still think there will be continued negotiations and compromise,” Tomlinson said on the Senate floor. 

Up next for the bill is the State House, where a tougher distracted driving bill was amended with bipartisan support last month.  However, that legislation has not yet been brought up for final votes.  33-states currently ban texting while driving.  9-states have banned talking on hand-held cell phones behind the wheel.

Human Trafficking Response Team

PA’s First Human Trafficking Response Team Announced

Police, prosecutors and non-profit groups have joined forces to announce the state’s first Human Trafficking Response Team.  It will cover a five county area in Central Pennsylvania, according to Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico.  “Just as we’re a major pass through for commerce, we can also be a thoroughfare for human trafficking,” Marsico said at a Wednesday news conference.  Marsico is also president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association (PDAA), which made the announcement alongside the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR).

PCAR’s Criminal Justice Specialist, Krista Hoffman, says human trafficking does occur in Pennsylvania.  “Every year between 100,000 and 300,000 US kids… are trafficked for prostitution within the United States,” she says.  Human trafficking became a criminal offense in Pennsylvania in 2005, and it occurs when a person is forced, coerced, threatened or deceived into performing labor or prostitution.  Hoffman notes that it does not have to involve travel.    

A grant from the Department of Health and Human Services will help to train a multidisciplinary team to respond to potential crimes of human trafficking in Dauphin, Adams, Cumberland, Perry and Franklin Counties.   But, officials see room for expansion.  “[It can] become an example of a best practice for the rest of Pennsylvania, and others throughout the country,” Marsico says.  Hoffman echoed those thoughts after the news conference: “If we can take our model of the five-county human trafficking task force and then expand it and really roll it out to the rest of Pennsylvania, I think it would be very effective.”

Marcellus Shale Protesters

Shale Protesters Complain of Inaction

Several hundred protesters, representing 13-environmental and related groups, converged on the state capitol Tuesday.  “We keep coming back to Harrisburg because [Marcellus Shale] drilling’s been going on in Pennsylvania for almost four years now, and what has our state legislature done?  They have done nothing,” said Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania state director of Clean Water Action.  Arnowitt called for a moratorium on natural gas drilling, until an impact study can be complete.  Protesters also called for a Marcellus Shale severance tax.  “Poll after poll tells us that the majority of Pennsylvanians want industry to pay their fair share in taxes, and they want clean air and clean water,” said Erika Staaf, PennEnvironment’s clean water advocate. 

State Senate Democrats

Senate Democrats talk state budget priorities

The protesters’ chants started filling the state capitol rotunda mere minutes after several member of the Senate Democratic caucus concluded a separate news conference on their state budget priorities.  But, there was some overlap in the two events.  Senate Democratic leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) said natural gas drillers should be a part of the budget solution, not a part of the budget problem.  “We believe that the conversation about the Marcellus extraction tax must take place now, must take place as a part of this budget, and must be as comprehensive as possible,” Costa said. 

Democrats and Republicans in Harrisburg have come forward, this session, with a variety of Marcellus Shale severance tax and/or impact fee proposals.  Governor Tom Corbett made a no tax pledge during the 2010 campaign, but has left the door open for a local impact fee, as long as no revenue goes to pad state coffers.  Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission has meetings scheduled through July 15th.  Their recommendations are due at the end of July, however the state budget deadline is June 30th.

AARP Lobby Day

A ‘Sea of Red’ at the State Capitol

Dick Chevrefils

Dick Chevrefils talks with Radio PA

Between 800 and 1,000 Pennsylvania members of AARP gathered on the state capitol lawn, Tuesday, for their annual lobby day.  All donned red AARP t-shirts.  State director Dick Chevrefils says they came to share their voices with the legislature about the issues that are important to the AARP.  “There’s a family caregiver piece of legislation that’s in both the House and Senate that we’re hoping is going to pass because it’s going to make a big impact on people that have the responsibility of caring for a loved one.”

The bills (HB 210 and SB 639) would allow neighbors and friends to enroll in the Family Caregiver Support Program, which is currently only open to relatives.  It would also increase the maximum monthly reimbursement from $200 to $600.  “It’s not going to cost the state any additional money… the funds are already there,” Chevrefils tells us.  The program is funded through state lottery revenues and federal sources.  Both bills have already passed the committee level and await additional action in their respective chambers. 

AARP members are also paying close attention to the state budget debate.  “We’re waiting to get a full picture of the budget, but at this point it’s basically watching and making sure we’re protecting the people of Pennsylvania,” Chevrefils says.  Their goal is to ensure there’s no loss to the funding for services that help people maintain their independence and stay in their homes: “When you see that sea of red, it’s the collective power of people coming together.  These people care about everybody – not only older people – but children, families, people with disabilities.  It’s all about people.”

Lawmakers Introduce Bills to Ban Teacher Strikes in Pennsylvania

Legislation has been introduced to make Pennsylvania the 38th state to ban teacher’s strikes.   The Strike-Free Education Pact would ban teacher strikes and lockouts in Pennsylvania and sets penalties for illegal work stoppages.  Representative Todd Rock (R-Franklin) says teacher strikes produce no winners. He says the biggest losers are always the children.

Rock says it’s not about punishing or taking rights away from teachers, it’s about restoring to every Pennsylvania child the legal right to a strike-free uninterrupted public education. He has proposed House Bill 1369 to ban strikes at the statutory level.

As part of the package, Representative Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler) has introduced  House Bill 1640 to amend the state constitution to specifically ban strikes or lockouts of employees of public education. The line addressing strikes would be added to Article 3, Section 14 which now says the General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education.

Representative Paul Clymer (R-Bucks), chair of the state house Education Committee, says government agencies play an important role that should not be interrupted by the collective bargaining process.

Representative Dan Truitt (R-Chester) says this is not about punishing teachers. He says he doesn’t blame teachers for taking advantage of the current system. Truitt believes the unions are too willing to use the strike option to gain an unfair advantage.  He believes the legislation is needed to level the playing field between the school districts and the teachers unions for the sake of the students, taxpayers and the teachers.

Representative Daryl Meltcalfe says the General Assembly is responsible for providing for a thorough and efficient system of public education.  He says allowing for teacher strikes as our current law does, creates inefficiency.