Final House Budget Vote Possible Today

    The Pennsylvania House of Representatives is poised to give its final approval to a $27.3 billion budget plan. The House voted 110-89 to advance the bill on Monday, setting up the final vote which could come as early as today. The spending plan stays true to Governor Tom Corbett’s overall spend figure, while supporters say it proritzes education funding over welfare spending. That means that while some of the Governor’s proposed education cuts are still included, some of that funding has been restored in the House version.

    House Speaker Sam Smith (R-Jefferson) left the door open for more spending on Monday, but only if the Governor’s office changes its revenue projections for the new fiscal year which begins on July 1st. Meanwhile, Smith agrees with the governor’s stance on this year’s surplus, currently a half-billion dollars. That money is destined for reserve accounts or for debt payments.

    Speaking to the PA Press Club on Monday, Speaker Smith also laid the blame for this year’s budget deficit squarely on the shoulders of former Governor Ed Rendell. Smith says Rendell’s legacy is the $4 billion budget gap that lawmakers are now trying to fill.

More Severe Storms, Possible Tornadoes

    Another strong storm front moved through central and eastern Pennsylvania late Monday, triggering tornado warnings in multiple counties. Some of the heaviest damage is reported in Juniata County, where barns, homes and other structures were subjected to high winds. No deaths or serious injuries have been reported, but barn roof collapses contributed to some loss of livestock and some buildings were reported to be completely destroyed.

    The National Weather Service will send a team to Juniata County today to examine the damage on the ground and determine if it was indeed caused by a tornado. Similar investigations are underway in other areas of central Pennsylvania today.

    No major issues are being reported by PPL Electric or PECO. PPL reported 55 customers without power in Juniata County overnight, while PECO reported nothing more than minor outages in Philadelphia.

    This latest series of storms adds to what has been a violent spring weather-wise for much of the country, including Pennsylvania. Multiple tornadoes have already been confirmed in the Keystone State this year, with summer still almost a month away.

Motorcycles

Bikers: Let Freedom Ride

On the same day that one state lawmaker reintroduced a bill to once again make motorcycle helmets mandatory, more than one hundred bikers rode to the state capitol for their annual motorcyclists’ rights rally.  It was no coincidence, according to Charles Umbenhauer with ABATE of PA.  “It’s probably a good idea to air both sides of this issue.  I certainly hoped we wouldn’t have to revisit it this early, but if we have to, it’s fine.”  ABATE stands for Alliance of Bikers Aimed Toward Education.   

“We do have a helmet law in Pennsylvania,” Umbenhauer stressed.  He says motorcyclists have to be at least 21, and either have two years of experience or complete a state-approved motorcycle safety course in order to choose to ride without a helmet.  Additionally, passengers can choose to ride helmetless if they are at least 21, and riding with an exempt motorcyclist.  The modified law has been in place since 2003. 

“We’re not anti-helmet, we’re not trying to get anybody to ride without a helmet,” Umbenhauer says.  Instead, ABATE focuses on education.  They believe the answer to motorcycle safety is training and awareness, not mandated helmet laws. 

While ABATE opposes State Rep. Dan Frankel’s (D-Allegheny) effort make motorcycle helmets mandatory for all riders again, the group is pushing several other bills.  For instance, they would like to see motorcycle learners’ permits limited to one year and to limit the number of times a person can apply for a learners permit.  Another bill ABATE endorses would address civil liability issues to encourage more owners of large parking lots to allow their property to be used for motorcycle safety courses. 

Numerous state lawmakers — like State Rep. Bill Kortz (D-Allegheny) — attended Monday’s motorcyclists’ rights rally.  Kortz used the occasion to unveil legislation that would make Harley-Davidson the official state motorcycle in Pennsylvania.  Kortz notes that Harley has a plant in York, PA, that they use American steel and American workers. 

Lt. Governor Jim Cawley also attended the rally to present Governor Tom Corbett’s proclamation proclaiming May 2011 as Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month in Pennsylvania.

Lawmaker wants to Reinstate Pennsylvania’s Motorcycle Helmet Law

A state lawmaker is introducing three motorcycle safety bills, including one to reinstate the helmet law for all riders.    

Representative Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny) says since the motorcycle helmet law was repealed in 2003, there have been an increase in deaths and injuries and a decrease in the number of riders wearing helmets, including those under 21 who are still required to wear them. Frankel says youth compliance with helmet laws plummets when the law only applies to them.

Under current law, riders age 21 and older who have been licensed to operate a motorcycle at least two years, or who have completed a motorcycle safety course approved by PennDOT or the Motorcycle Safety Foundation are not required to wear a helmet.

Frankel says when people don’t wear helmets, they’re more likely to lose their lives or suffer head trauma that could leave them incapacitated. He says people who have a traumatic brain injury bear those costs for an entire lifetime.

 Frankel says while “preventing tragedies is the most important reason to restore the helmet law, there are several other reasons to fix this mistake, including the cost to taxpayers and insurance ratepayers of preventable deaths and head injuries”.

Frankel announced the bills at a Capitol news conference on Monday morning. He was joined by several others, including Christopher Hart, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Hart says because impact trauma to the head is the most common single cause of motorcycle deaths, helmets save lives and helmets prevent injuries.  He added that helmets also save untold dollars in health care and rehabilitation costs.

Representative Frankel says research by the University of Pittsburgh estimates that just the additional head injuries suffered since the repeal of the mandatory helmet law have cost the Commonwealth approximately $18 million in hospital charges and $55 million in long-term care annually.   

The other two bills would require special license plates for motorcyclists under age 21, so they could be more easily identified and require  proof of sufficient insurance and long term disability coverage for those riders who choose not to use a helmet.

Marcellus Shale

Study Projects Economic Impact of Marcellus Shale Tax, Fee Proposals

A new study from Penn State’s Institute for Research in Training & Development treated the Marcellus Shale severance tax and impact fee proposals as added production costs to the gas producers.  Professor David Passmore says the four proposals they considered differed based on how they handle exemptions, and how high the tax rate is over time.

“I think what’s important here, even though there’s variation in the impact, the impact of any of these would be relatively small compared to the size of the Pennsylvania economy,” Passmore says.  For example, he points to the potential impact on employment.  He says the highest tax year proposal would have an impact of about 3,200-jobs.  “Now this is at a time when we’re talking about 7.5-million project jobs.” 

When projecting the impact on gross state product, the four proposals range from a ten million dollar hit (using State Rep. Kate Harper’s HB 1406) to a $272-million dollar hit on GSP (using State Rep. Greg Vitali’s HB 33).  Those numbers are mere fractions of a percent of Pennsylvania’s projected $598-billion dollar gross state product in 2015.    

 While the overall economic impact of the plans is small, professor Rose Baker points out the impact could be significant to a small company or to an individual who doesn’t land a job because of them.  Passmore and Baker hope their numbers are considered in relation to the decisions policymakers must make in terms of imposing a tax or a fee on the Marcellus Shale industry.  “We need to begin working together with the industry to reap some of these benefits that are flowing in, and kind of get past the tax question,” Passmore says. 

In addition to the Vitali and Harper plans, which were referenced earlier, Passmore and Baker studied Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati’s SB 1100 and Senator John Yudichak’s SB 905).  State Rep. Greg Vitali (D-Delaware) will attempt to force a State House vote on his legislation on Tuesday, according to a statement.  Vitali says Pennsylvania is the only natural gas-producing state that does not have a drilling tax or fee. 

Marcellus Shale Coalition Claims Bias in Local Laws

    The head of the natural gas industry’s Marcellus Shale Coalition claims that some local municipalities in Pennsylvania are discriminating against drillers by passing local laws aimed at preventing gas well operations. Katheryn Klaber cited laws against drilling within a certain distance from buildings and noise ordinances that in some cases ban nighttime noise increases of 5 decibels. Klaber says that’s a law being violated by crickets.

    Klaber was appearing before Governor Tom Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission when she made the comments, asking for “clarity and consistency” in local ordinances. While non-committal on acknowledging that any local laws violated the state constitution, Lieutenant Governor Jim Cawley, who chairs the committee, said the panel will take a look at the industry’s complaints in greater depth.

    An “impact fee” bill currently before the state Senate would establish a model ordinance for municipalities statewide. Those communities that pass stricter local laws would be excluded from the money raised through the fees, which start at $10,000 per well.

    Governor Tom Corbett established the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission earlier this year to examine all aspects and impacts of the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania State Police will Join National “Click It or Ticket” Campaign this week

A holiday weekend is coming up and Pennsylvania State Police are launching a campaign in conjunction with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that reminds people to buckle up.   The “Click It or Ticket” campaign will run from May 23rd through June 5th.

State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan has instructed troopers to adopt a zero tolerance policy toward violations of Pennsylvania’s seat belt and child passenger safety restraint laws.

Noonan says “with heavy traffic expected for the Memorial Day holiday weekend, it’s crucial we encourage drivers now to make sure that all passengers are properly restrained whenever they travel.”

Spokesman Jack Lewis the goal is not to write tickets, but to get more people to buckle up.  He says the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation estimates the current seat belt usage rate at 88%.  Lewis says that means 12 out of every 100 people are not using their seat belts.

Troopers will be offering free child safety seat inspections in conjunction with the special enforcement period. They will teach parents how to correctly install and use safety seats.

State Police conducted voluntary inspections in September during Child Passenger Safety Week and found the majority were not installed properly. State Police say a little over 500 were checked that week and 75% of them had a problem.

For the locations and times of the free child safety seat inspections over the next two weeks, go to http://www.psp.state.pa.us/.

To learn more about Pennsylvania’s seat belt and child safety seat laws, visit http://www.buckleuppa.org/.

PA School Districts

Survey Projects State Budget’s Impact on Schools

More than 70% of PA school districts are planning to cut educational programs, according to a new survey conducted by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) and Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA).  Music, the arts, physical education, social studies, health and more would no longer be available or be greatly reduced, according to PASA executive director Jim Buckheit.  “Not only will the things that students particularly enjoy… be reduced, but elective courses and even some core instructional programming will be reduced.” 

The survey results are based on responses from 263 of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts.  Among its other findings: 86% of districts plan to reduce class sizes, 70% plan to lay off staff, and 31% plan on nixing full-day kindergarten.  Buckheit says these numbers show that education is not the place to cut.  “If we want to improve our economic chances in the future, we need to education our children because they’re the workforce of tomorrow.” 

The survey was conducted largely prior to the introduction of House Republicans’ budget plans.  The majority caucus expects to vote this week on a budget bill (HB 1485) that would restore about $210-million dollars to public schools, compared to the billion-dollar cuts initially proposed by Governor Tom Corbett in March.  “It’s a step forward, but it’s still a big hole to fill for school districts across the state,” Buckheit says.  Even if additional state revenue comes in, Buckheit tells us, it may not alleviate the cuts described in the survey.  The state budget deadline is June 30th.

Heavy Rains Have Led to Landslides in Western Pennsylvania

The rain is causing some costly problems for roads in Western Pennsylvania. 

There have been more rainy days than sunny days in the last month and a half, some with torrential downpours, leading to several dozen landslides.

Jim Struzzi, spokesman for PennDOT’s District 11 , says in some cases rocks and mud have fallen onto the road, and in others the roadway slope has slipped away, causing the travel lanes to subside and crack. District 11 covers Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence Counties.

Struzzi says the due to the geography of the area, there are a lot of shale deposits that, when they become saturated, become loose and slick.  He says rocks then tend to give way.

Struzzi  says the immediate goal is to get the debris and mud cleared when slides occur so the roadway can be reopened to traffic,  if that’s possible.  Some of the affected roads still have lane closures. One of the major roads that has been hit with a landslide is Route 65, the Ohio Valley Boulevard.  Struzzi says it’s not the first time they’ve had to deal with rocks coming down on Route 65, because it does run along the Ohio River.

Struzzi says there were 32 active slides just in Allegheny County alone.

Repairs are expected to be costly. Struzzi says conservative estimates, just to deal with the major landslides, put the cost at between $15 and $25 million dollars.   He says that’s funding that they just do not have at this time. Struzzi says the situation will require  some tough decisions. 

Struzzi says with the way the weather has been going, and is predicted through July, they’re going to have additional landslides to deal with in Western Pennsylvania.

Senior citizen woman

New Report says Senior Citizens Have Seen Their Buying Power Decline.

Senior citizens are having to stretch their dollars more after two years without a Social Security Cost of Living Adjustment according to an advocacy group.   The Seniors Citizens League says older Americans have lost 32% of their buying power since 2000.

The group’s 2011 survey of senior costs report shows housing, utilities, transportation, health care and food costs are among those that have risen the most.

Mary Johnson, Social Security and Medicare Policy Analyst, says health care costs are not fully reflected in the COLA seniors receive and she says that has a lot to do with why it’s not keeping up with the costs.  For example, Johnson says Medicare Part B premiums have risen 154% since 2000.

Johnson says we need to start with a more fair and reliable COLA. She says the League supports legislation that would more accurately reflect senior costs.  She adds they also support a guaranteed minimum COLA.

Johnson says seniors are making difficult choices as a result of the loss of buying power. Some are delaying necessary visits to the doctor and filling prescriptions. Johnson says some seniors have younger relatives who are unemployed living with them and some older Americans are returning to the job market to supplement their income.

The Senior Citizens League is an advocacy group that was first established as a special project of The Retired Enlisted Association. The full report is available at their website.