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.

State Capitol Fountain

Lawmakers Cast Unanimous Votes for UC Reforms

State Senator John Gordner (R-Columbia)

State Sen. John Gordner (R-Columbia)

State lawmakers passed the bill just in time to ensure that the federal extended benefits program continues.  “We are getting it done literally under the wire, but it’s an important fix to do for the 45,000 folks who would otherwise lose 13-weeks of unemployment compensation,” says State Senator John Gordner (R-Columbia).  Gordner chairs the Labor & Industry Committee, helped to broker a major compromise between chambers and joins us for this week’s Radio PA Roundtable program. 

The bill represents the biggest reforms to Pennsylvania’s unemployment compensation system in the last 20-years.  “We were the only state left without an enforceable work search provision,” Gordner tells us.  It also freezes the maximum weekly benefit at $573-dollars.  Gordner says that provision slows down the growth of benefits.  “So, those 20% that are at the top level are not going to be losing benefits, but we’ve basically put in a freeze for a year, and then a 1% cap on the growth of that system.”  The average weekly benefit is currently $310-dollars.   

Also, individuals who get severance pay beyond $17,853 (40% of the average salary) won’t be able to concurrently receive unemployment compensation benefits. 

The package will save the state’s unemployment compensation system $114-million dollars next year.  However, PA borrowed over $4-billion dollars from the federal government in order to meet its UC obligations during the recession.  Gordner calls it a “good start” in paying that money back.  “We still need to do a solvency measure.  The problem with this drill was that we were under a time element and we got to the last day in order to do it.” Gordner tells us he’ll work with State Rep. Ron Miller (R-York), who chairs the House Labor & Industry Committee, to come up with a long-term solvency package. 

The House approved the final version of SB 1030 on Thursday.  The Senate did likewise on Friday.  Both votes were unanimous.  Governor Tom Corbett is expected to quickly sign the bill into law.

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.