Corbett Administration Comes to Terms with Another State Employee Union

    It took 10 meetings spread out over weeks of talks, but the Corbett Administration and the Service Employees International Union have reportedly come to a tentative agreement on a new contract for about 10,000 state employees. It’s the 2nd consecutive day that the state has come to terms with a major state employee union. A deal with AFSCME Council 13 was announced Wednesday night.

    Last night’s agreement came just 24 hours after the SEIU Local 668 characterized the ongoing talks as “frustrating” and said the two sides were “miles apart.” The union plans to release details of the agreement today.

    Both the SEIU and AFSCME contracts were set to expire next week.

New Website Simplifies Process for Reporting Suspected Child Abuse

A new website is on line to provide statewide resources for reporting and preventing child abuse.  It’s a joint effort of Penn State’s College of Medicine, Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and School of Law.

Look Out for Child Abuse” is designed to be a one stop resource for completing a CY-47 form, Pennsylvania’s official form for reporting suspected abuse. A video on the site walks a person through the process step-by-step, helping users compose a detailed easy-to-read report. The forms will still have to be printed and sent to the appropriate county children and youth agency.  However, a pilot program will be tested with Cumberland County Children and Youth Service for a form that could be submitted electronically.

The website  also includes legal information, resources for victims and educational tools. Dr. Benjamin Levi, professor of pediatrics and humanities at the Penn State College of Medicine, says one of the  things they’ve tried to do, is to make the website very accessible to lots of people for lots of different reasons. He says the opening page includes a site map that will allow people to navigate easily and quickly.

Dr. Levi says the goal is to make the reporting information widely available.  He says Pennsylvania is one of the lowest reporting states in the country for child abuse.  He says the rate is less than half of the national average and presumably that’s not because there are fewer children being abused in Pennsylvania, it’s because people don’t report as often.

Dr. Harold Paz, CEO of Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, says we recognize the problem of child abuse is not simply a medical problem, or a legal problem. He says it’s an issue that affects children across the Commonwealth and we need to make creative and collaborative approaches if we’re going to be able to stop abuse.

Former Pennsylvania First Lady Michele Ridge is a member of Vision of Hope’s Advisory Council for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. She says child sexual abuse is a serious problem. She says protecting children from sexual  abuse is a shared responsibility. Mrs. Ridge  says these critical new tools through “Look Out for Child Abuse” will help them achieve their goal.

Ridge says all of us must work together by joining the fight to help protect the hopes and dreams of our children.

The site address is pennstatehershey.org/childabuse.

* Photo courtesy of “Look Out for Child Abuse” website.

 

One Week Remains Before State Budget Deadline

State budget negotiations continue in Harrisburg as the Corbett Administration attempts to iron out differences with fellow Republicans in the legislative leadership. Their goal is to have a spending plan signed and in place one week from tonight, making this the first budget deadline met in 8 years.

Governor Tom Corbett said last night that he remains confident that a deal can be reached in time to meet that deadline, but there are indications that his confidence is not shared by the Senate leadership. Drew Crompton, Chief of Staff to Senate President Joe Scarnati, says the governor’s refusal to discuss a proposed Marcellus Shale “impact fee” has the potential to push the process beyond June 30th. The governor has previously stated that the impact fees are to be kept separate from the general fund budget and he refused to comment on whether or not they were a part of Wednesday’s talks. Corbett does list tort reform and school vouchers as two major issues that need to be discussed before party leaders can agree on a budget.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi previously stated that a handshake agreement of sorts would need to be in place by today if the budget had a chance to pass by June 30th. As talks ended last night, indications were that such a “gentleman’s agreement” is still elusive.

Meanwhile, state Democrats are critical of the budget negotiation, calling it a “behind closed doors” process. Republicans control the House, Senate and Governor’s office in Harrisburg.

Harrisburg's skyline

AFSCME Council 13 Reports Tentative Deal with Corbett Administration

One of the biggest state employee unions is reporting on its website that it has reached a tentative agreement with the Corbett Administration. AFSCME Council 13 says the deal was struck around 11pm Wednesday night, but so far neither side is releasing any details. The tentative contract must still be ratified by the union membership, a process which will begin with a policy committee meeting in Harrisburg on Saturday.

AFSCME Council 13 is one of about a dozen-and-a-half state employee unions whose contracts are set to expire on June 30th. Talks with another of the big unions, Service Employees International Union Local 668, have been less fruitful. The union described Wednesday’s session as “frustrating,” with only minor movement as the two sides remain “miles apart.” Those talks broke off around 10pm last night and are set to resume today.

Marcellus Shale

Marcellus Shale Job Creation Numbers Questioned

A new report questions the number of jobs created by the Marcellus Shale boom between 2007 and 2010. The “not so mighty Marcellus” might describe the results of their analysis according to Dr. Stephen Hertzenberg, Executive Director of the Keystone Research Center.  He says their review shows less than 10,000 jobs created rather than the 48,000 reported in recent statements and commentaries.

Dr. Hertzenberg says job creation differs from new hires, because you also have to look at quits, firings and retirements.  He says you have to look at both sides of the employment ledger.

Dr. Hertzenberg says the Center is trying to get the record straight because when people have a distorted picture of how many jobs are being created by Marcellus, that’s “a lousy foundation for good policy.” He adds Pennsylvania should develop a Marcellus shale economic development policy that includes training and placement of Pennsylvania workers in Marcellus jobs and invests in industries that supply the natural gas drilling industry.

Kathryn Klaber, Executive Director of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, questions the timing of the report, saying it doesn’t add to the debate.

Klaber says it’s a good thing to be creating these jobs and it makes no sense to be quibbling over the numbers, when there’s widespread agreement that the  numbers are large.

Klaber says there are a lot of different ways to look at these jobs. There are jobs in the core industry; directly in drilling and mid-stream development.  There are thousands more jobs, according to Klaber, in industries that support those jobs through the supply chain.

Klaber says Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry statistics show unemployment in the counties with Marcellus Shale development remains below the state average. She says the most important thing “we can do is keep our eye on the ball related to the natural gas industry and what it could mean for the state’s economy.” She says there are incredibly good jobs being created, making it an integral part of a rather sluggish economy.

Food and Drug Administration Unveils New Cigarette Warning Labels

The Food and Drug Administration has unveiled nine new cigarette warning labels. The warnings will take up the top 50% of a pack of cigarettes and 20% of an advertisement for cigarettes.  They include graphic images of diseases related to smoking, such as lung disease and oral cancer. Tobacco companies have until September 2012 to comply.

Dr. Lawrence Deyton, Director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, says the warning labels have not changed in 25 years.  He says the average smoker no longer realizes that there’s a health warning on a pack of cigarettes.  He says scientific literature shows inclusion of a graphic image and a specific warning does help smokers increase their personal knowledge about their risk.

Dr. Deyton says for decades, the rates of smoking had been declining, but in the 7- 8 years, it has leveled off to 20%.  He says 1 in 5 high school kids smoke cigarettes.  The new labels are required as part of a law passed by Congress,  the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Control Act.

Dr. Deyton says the new warnings convey the very personal and true risk of cigarette smoking.

He says the FDA started with 36 images and tested them extensively to determine which had the most impact.  He says they considered whether it educated the person looking at it, whether the person could recall the image and whether it changed the viewer’s beliefs about their own health risk and their intent to quit, or not to start smoking.

He says the warning also includes the 1-800-Quit-Now number, the national helpline. He says when a smoker picks up a pack with the new labels, there’s a resource they can act on instantly to get the help they need to stop smoking.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says tobacco use is a leading cause of premature and preventable death in the United States.

Capitol View from East Wing

House Members Introduce Their Own School Choice Measures

With no action expected on Senate Bill 1 this summer, some state House members are introducing their own school voucher legislation.   Representative Curt Schroder (R-Chester) has introduced two measures as alternatives to the Senate bill.

HB 1679, the “Opportunity Scholarship and Educational Improvement Tax Credit Act”, will offer $5,000 opportunity scholarships to all students.  Representative Schroder calls it true school choice. It would include a public-to-public school option and would also expand the Educational Improvement Tax Credit, offering that credit to home school families.

HB 1678, called the “Failing Schools Student Rescue Act”, would offer a $5,000 voucher to all students who attend or live within the attendance boundary of a persistently low achieving school. Representative Schroder says where Senate Bill 1 established income limits for voucher eligibility in its failing schools option; all students would be eligible under his bill.

Representative Schroder says if a school is failing to educate students, all students are endangered regardless of family income and must be given the opportunity to get out of the “failure factories that some of our schools have become.”

Don Adams of the Independence Hall Tea Party Association has concerns about Senate Bill 1.  He says the concepts behind it are so complicated, that the bill is difficult to promote.   Sharon Cherubin of UNITEPA and the Grassroots Coalition for Real School Choice also favors Representative Schroder’s bills, saying the legislation would empower all parents.

Representative Schroder says they’d anticipate passing only one of those bills.  He says they were offered as  alternatives to Senate Bill 1.

Meanwhile, another house Republican, Jim Christiana (R-Beaver), has introduced a bill that would limit vouchers to low income families in under-performing districts while expanding the EITC for middle income families.

HB 1708 is called the “Students and Schools Rescue Act”.  The bill also has some bipartisan support. Representative Tony Payton Jr. (D-Phila) is a cosponsor. House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R- Allegheny) has also signed on to the bill, which would incorporate the language expanding the EITC program as passed earlier in HB 1330.

Under the Capitol Dome

10 Days Left in State Budget Deadline Countdown

   House Republican leaders say in 10 days or less, Pennsylvania will have its first on-time spending plan in nearly a decade. With June 30th looming, the process is kicking into high gear as lawmakers say work continues “non-stop” to meet the often-missed deadline.

    House and Senate budget negotiators are currently ironing out the differences in their spending proposals. In a memo to reporters, House Republicans say final-version budget bills could begin to move this week and progress is being made to craft a budget that fits the criteria set by Governor Tom Corbett. The governor has demanded a $27.3 billion no-tax-increase budget.  On a recent appearance on PAMatters.com’s Ask the Governor, Corbett also reiterated that he does not want lawmakers to spend any of the $500+ million in excess revenues collected during the current fiscal year. The governor is earmarking those surplus dollars for reserve funds and to pay down debt.

State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler)     Also this week, the House may act on State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe‘s (R-Butler) controversial Voter-ID bill. The Pennsylvania Voter Identification Protection Act has been rumored to be on its way to the House floor for weeks, but opposition to the bill has been frequent and vocal. Supporters say the legislation would crack down on voter fraud. Opponents say its intent is to disenfranchise poor and elderly voters.

    The House and Senate return to session today in Harrisburg.

Gov. Tom Corbett

Governor Corbett Signs Unemployment Bill

Governor Tom Corbett has signed a bill to ensure the continuation of a federally funded, 13 week period of unemployment compensation benefits.  Senate Bill 1030 also makes reforms that will save Pennsylvania’s unemployment compensation fund an estimated $133 million annually.

The Governor called it good legislation and an important step toward reforming Pennsylvania’s unemployment compensation law.

Governor Corbett says while the reforms will benefit employers and the workforce, there remains more to do, in the long-term, to restore the trust fund’s solvency and repay the state’s federal loans.

The Department of Labor and Industry says extended benefits claimants should file next week, starting on Sunday, as they normally would.

The state House and Senate passed the bill unanimously this week.

Without the Governor’s signature, about 45,000 claimants would have lost the extended benefits.

Pennsylvania’s May Unemployment Report Raises Some Concern

Pennsylvania’s jobless rate dipped one-tenth of a point to 7.4% in May.  Some economists are concerned about the numbers, because the seasonally adjusted number of non-farm jobs dropped by 14,200. 

Mark Price, labor economist for the Keystone Research Center in Harrisburg says the May jobs report raises concerns that a renewed weakness in the national economy is being felt in Pennsylvania.

Price says the weakness was widespread in May’s state numbers; there was weakness in almost every major sector.  He says the public sector continued to shed jobs, and we have not seen the full impact of public sector layoffs because budgets are still being finalized.

 Price says we will have to see if these numbers continue or if the May report is just a bump in the road. He points out Pennsylvania has added just under 80,000 jobs since the end of the recession.   

He believes we’re still far off from the risk of a double dip recession, but Price says a bigger concern is growth remaining too slow.   He says that would signal a long, slow, painful recovery.  He says state and local governments would continue to struggle because they won’t have a lot of the revenue they had in the past and a lot of families will have trouble making ends meet. Price says what we need is much faster growth.