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Mike Schmidt and Barry Bonds Baseball Cards

Poll: Phillies Win PA Pennant Race

The Phillies top the Pirates 51 – 22 in a new survey of Pennsylvania baseball fans.  It’s Quinnipiac’s first ever Pennsylvania Pennant Race poll.  “The Phillies are playing .600 ball, compared to the Pirates .500, and Pennsylvania fans are lined up with the winner,” says pollster Tim Malloy. 

It’s no surprise that fans in the southeast prefer the Phils (83%, 89% in the city).  Likewise, southwest fans prefer the Bucs (78%, 76% in Allegheny County).  What’s interesting is Central PA, which roots for the Phillies 50 -13. 

These numbers are taken from the responses of Pennsylvanians who self-identify as baseball fans.  They were asked, “What is your favorite major league baseball team?”  Behind the Phillies and Pirates, the New York Yankees came in third with 8% support.  The Mets get 3%.  The Braves, Orioles and Red Sox net 2% each among PA baseball fans. 

(In the interest of full disclosure, yes those are my baseball cards pictured above… and I root for my hometown Cleveland Indians)

Milk Marketing Board Maintains Current Dairy Price

The Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board has acted on a request from the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau to maintain its current over-order premium price for Class I milk. The board agreed to keep the price at $2.15 per hundredweight for the six months beginning July 1. In addition, the board will keep its current premium price add on for fuel costs in place.

Farm Bureau President Carl Shaffer says improved milk prices this year are bringing some relief to dairy farmers, who are using any net profits to pay down debt accumulated during 2009, a devastating year for most milk producers.

The Bureau asked the board earlier this month to maintain the price levels, citing the volatility of milk prices over the past three years along with consistently higher fuel, seed, fertilizer and feed costs. Dairy farmers are also concerned about the rain this spring, fearing delays in planting could affect the yield of feed crops. Pennsylvania had its wettest spring on record this year. A lower yield could force dairy farmers to buy additional feed from other sources, further increasing their costs.

Dairy farmers whose milk is produced, processed and sold in Pennsylvania for Class I fluid milk  receive the over-order premium and the premium add on based on the price of fuel.

Consumer should see no change in milk prices as a result of the action.

June is National Dairy Month.  According to the Farm Bureau,   the dairy industry produces over 40 percent of the Commonwealth’s agricultural receipts.

Money From Higher Education Agency Will Boost State Grants

Pennsylvania’s state grant program is getting a shot in  the arm from the agency that administers it.  The Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency has approved a $50 million public service contribution to the program. Along with the expected state appropriation, that’s raising the anticipated maximum state grant from $3,541 to $4,309 for the 2011-12 academic year. The supplement is funded entirely through the agency’s business earnings.

PHEAA spokesman Keith New says the agency has been doing a series of restructuring and cost-cutting initiatives, they’ve developed new business and they’ve been able to secure their financial position sufficiently to be able to provide the additional funding. Pennsylvania is now one of four official federal student loan servicers, enabling the agency to grow its business.

Representative William Adolph, PHEAA Board Chairman, says the agency has worked diligently to cut costs and boost productivity to ensure that its best able to serve the needs of Pennsylvania students and families struggling to afford higher education.

In addition to the supplemental funding for state grants, PHEAA has extended the deadline for community college students to file the annual State Grant application from May 1 to August 1 for non-renewal students. The extension is expected to provide awards to approximately 15,000 additional students.

The Governor’s proposed State Grant appropriation is $380.9 million. Once the Commonwealth budget is passed, final awards will be recalculated for all students.

PHEAA expects to award grants to 192,000 students for the next academic year.


Prescription Drug Abuse

Testifiers: PA Needs RX Drug Monitoring Program

Prescription drug abuse is an epidemic in Pennsylvania, according to State Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R-Bucks).  In efforts to rein in the problem, the chairman of the House Human Services Committee has introduced legislation to create a Pharmaceutical Accountability Monitoring System to give doctors and pharmacists the ability to monitor people they suspect of doctor shopping or pharmacy shopping.  “Then they’ll be able to tell this person that – hey – I’m not going to write this prescription because you’ve been at Dr. so-and-so yesterday for the same thing,” DiGirolamo tells us.

The House and Human Services Committee held the first of two hearings on HB 1651 Thursday.  A litany of speakers urged lawmakers to act on the bill.  “Pennsylvania is awash in prescription drugs of addiction, and many of them are tragically lethal.  The streets are full of prescription drugs of addiction,” said Deb Beck, president of the Drug & Alcohol Service Providers Organization of Pennsylvania.  Others pointed to 2005 data that show nearly 1 in 20 Pennsylvanians used an opioid for non medical purposes in the past year. 

DiGirolamo says the cost to the state would be negligible because the bill gives pharmacists the responsibility of entering the information into the statewide database.  The Pennsylvania Pharmacists Association supports the initiative.  “Pharmacists probably more than anyone see the effects of diversion and abuse, and are put in the hard decision point of whether to dispense or not,” said Pat Epple, Association CEO.  Epple, however, did point out that the bill would not be without costs to pharmacies.  She also raised the point of “mail order” pharmacies, which would not be covered by the bill. 

DiGirolamo tells us 47 other states have already put similar tools in place.  A second hearing has been scheduled for next Thursday, because so many people expressed interest in testifying.  Details of the bill are still being hammered out.

Lottery Fund

Pennsylvania House Votes to Give PA Lottery a Financial Check Up

The Pennsylvania Lottery will be getting a financial check up.  The state House of Representatives has adopted a resolution that directs the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee to prepare a report on lottery sales forecasts, in both the short and long term.

Representative Martin Causer (R-Cameron/McKean/Potter), the sponsor of the resolution, says the last financial review was conducted in 1994.

Causer says a lot has changed since then, and he wants to make sure there’s sustainable funding for the valuable programs the lottery supports.  The resolution, HR 106, cites the introduction of casino gambling and lingering concern regarding the potential impact of slot machines and table games on lottery sales.

The committee will look at whether state Lottery fund revenues are sufficient to support lottery-funded programs at existing or expanded levels or if cutbacks or program changes will be needed to maintain the solvency of the fund. The panel will also determine if any changes to law, regulation or policy are needed.

Lottery funded programs include Area Agencies on Aging, PACE, PACENET, long term living, Property Tax and Rent Rebates and shared ride services.

The   committee will have six months to complete the study.   The report will be submitted to the Aging and Older Adult Services and Finance Committee.

The vote to approve HR 106 was unanimous.

State Capitol Facing North Office Building

Lawmakers Strike Unemployment Compensation Deal

The compromise ensures that some 45,000 unemployed Pennsylvanians won’t lose their extended federal benefits next week.  It will also save the unemployment compensation system about $114-million dollars a year.  “It is the most extensive unemployment compensation reform package that we have seen – it’s the only unemployment compensation reform package we’ve seen – in ten years,” says House majority leader Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny).  “There are significant reforms that are being brought to the table.”   

Chairman of the House Labor & Industry Committee, Ron Miller (R-York), says they will freeze next year’s maximum weekly benefit at $573-dollars a week.  “There will be a zero percent increase for next year, and then a five year sliding scale that will be one percent the year after, one point one the year after, that is the cap, it can’t go above that,” Miller says. 

Other savings would come from a new requirement that unemployment compensation recipients actively search for work, and new rules concerning severance pay.  The savings in the deal that was struck Wednesday evening are greater than the $60-million projected savings in the original Senate bill, but much less than the original House bill.  The legislative process is on pace for Senate concurrence this Friday. 

The statewide unemployment rate currently stands at 7.4%, according to data just released Thursday by the Department of Labor & Industry.  It’s much lower than the national average, which remains above 9%, but Pennsylvania owes the federal government nearly $4-billion dollars it has borrowed to cover unemployment benefits during the recession.

PLCB Holds the Line on Prices Again

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board will hold the line on prices this summer.  The board has rejected more than 400 price increases requested by its suppliers. Chairman Patrick J. Stapleton says it was just not a good time to raise prices on consumers, who have already been facing higher prices at the supermarket and gas pump.  

Stapleton says that after looking at the numbers and the buying patterns of Pennsylvanians, it was clear that consumers could not sustain any price increases at this time. He says customers are continuing to “buy down”, picking up cheaper items. 

Stapleton says maintaining current shelf prices ensures people can enjoy their favorite wine or spirit without sacrificing the family budget.

Stapleton says the board  also gave consideration to its licensees, such as restaurants and other establishments, who are just finally starting to pull out of the recession.     

Stapleton says the board will take another look at the issue in three months, because price requests are usually submitted quarterly. The PLCB had earlier implemented a moratorium in November, while also maintaining its own operational costs.

New Impact Fee Legislation Introduced In Pennsylvania House

While state House Democrats have been pushing for a broader Marcellus Shale tax, Republican Marguerite Quinn of Bucks County has introduced impact fee legislation that has bipartisan co-sponsorship.  She says House Bill 1700 would not direct any money into the general fund.

Half of the fee would be divided between counties and municipalities that host drilling sites, 5% would go to the state’s conservation districts,  15% to the Environmental Stewardship fund, 10% to the Hazardous Site Cleanup Fund and 20% to the Motor License Fund.  

The fee would start at $50 thousand per well for the first two years, drop to $45,000 for the next two years, $40,000 for the next two years, and then continue declining to $15,000 in year 15 and $10,000 in year 20.    

Representative Mario Scavello (R-Monroe) applauded the proposal, saying quite a bit of the funding would go back to local communities and that’s where the impact is the greatest.

Representative Eugene DePasquale (D-York) says the bill differs from the Senate impact fee legislation in a key area.  He says many members in the house find the local zoning provision in the Senate bill particularly troubling.   

The Senate bill (SB 1100) calls for the development of a model ordinance for zoning in drilling areas.  It would make municipalities or counties that adopt stricter

Representative Marguerite Quinn (R-Bucks)

ordinances ineligible to receive a share of the impact fee.

Capitol View from East Wing

Bath Salts Ban Heads to Governor’s Desk

Bath salts are dangerous – even deadly – yet legal.  The bath salts that state lawmakers are targeting aren’t what you bought mom for her birthday.  These are synthetic stimulants created to mimic the effects of cocaine and methamphetamine.  “They have a lot of psychotic effects and hallucinations and things like that,” says State Senator Elder Vogel (R-Beaver/Lawrence), the prime sponsor of SB 1006.  “We have enough drug problems now… let alone to have these fake drugs come along and be easier to buy.” 

The legislation cleared its final legislative hurdle Wednesday, earning unanimous support in the State Senate.  The House had earlier amended the bill to allow law enforcement to keep up with any future compounds the manufacturers may use.  “I think it will become one of the most forward thinking and progressive pieces of legislation regarding these synthetic substances in the nation,” State Rep. RoseMarie Swanger (R-Lebanon) said on the House floor.  Like the Senate vote, final House passage was unanimous earlier this week. 

The banning of bath salts was one of the top legislative priorities of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.  “They have a stimulant in them that causes this violent, paranoid behavior, and it’s really dangerous for the individuals using them, as well as for the community,” PDAA president Ed Marsico tells us.  In addition to bath salts, Vogel’s bill would prohibit synthetic marijuana and salvia divinorum.  

Synthetic drugs are currently sold in hemp shops, smoke shops and even convenience stores.  Numerous counties have taken matters into their own hands and sought injunctions to ban the sale of bath salts.  Lawmakers call them a statewide epidemic.  The bill’s next stop is Governor Tom Corbett’s desk.

Tom Vilsak - File Photo

Biomass Project Will Benefit Western PA

The USDA is targeting 5,344 acres in northeast Ohio and northwest Pennsylvania for a new Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) project.  US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says they will incentivize to grow “giant miscanthus,” which is a hybrid grass that can grow 13-feet tall.  “The land that will be used to grow this crop will be land that would most likely not be used for traditional crop production,” Vilsack said in a conference call with PA and OH media.  Vilsack says the miscanthus will be turned into pellets: “Which in turn will be used by electric companies to produce power and electricity.”   

The seven-county area includes Erie, Crawford and Mercer counties in Pennsylvania’s northwest corner.  “We believe that as many as 1,200 jobs will eventually be created,” Vilsack says.  Eventually, the USDA hopes there will be enough interest in these biomass pellets to create an export market.  Pennsylvania’s alternative energy portfolio standard is 18% by 2020, and at least 8% of that should come from renewable energy sources like biomass.   

Vilsack, by the way, is a Pittsburgh native.