State Capitol Fountain

PA Lawmakers Seek New Offices

A half-dozen State Reps. won primary elections for various local offices, last month, and will appear on the November ballot.  For instance, Republican Doug Reichley is on the ballot for a judicial post in Lehigh County.  Discussing the large number of lawmakers who may bolt Harrisburg, Reichley says it comes and goes in cycles.  “I think there were just two members in the ’09 elections that ran, so I think it is coincidence this year with the number of members who are running for other elected offices.” 

Reichley has served the residents of Lehigh and Berks Counties since he was first elected to the House in 2002, and admits he would appreciate a chance to serve closer to home.  “The amount of time away from home that is required by the job – both to be in Harrisburg and to be doing events in the district – really does take a toll on your family life,” said Reichley, who has two children at home. 

Also on the November ballot is Democrat Josh Shapiro, who’s campaigning for Montgomery County Commissioner.  He calls the opportunity too much to pass up.  “For me it was about helping people in a more direct way, about having the opportunity to affect more lives than I do now in a positive way,” Shapiro says.  He’s also drawn to the executive role of a county commissioner. 

Six State Reps in all could be voted into new jobs this fall: four Democrats and two Republicans.  Republican Dennis O’Brien and Democrat Kenyatta Johnson are each eying seats on Philadelphia City Council.  O’Brien, of course, served as Speaker of the House from 2007 to 2008.  Special elections would be called next year to fill any vacant seats.

Random Octane Testing of PA Gasoline

Committee Gives Green Light to Octane Testing Bill

Alaska, Nebraska and Pennsylvania are the last three states without required tests for octane levels at their gas pumps.  “Just recently Maryland who passed the legislation did a study, and they found substantial variations in the testing,” says State Senator Stewart Greenleaf, the prime sponsor of SB 341.  Greenleaf’s legislation would require the Department of Agriculture to randomly test for octane levels in gasoline.  It has the support of the Pennsylvania AAA Federation. 

Executive director of the Pennsylvania AAA Federation Ted Leonard points out that a gallon of regular gas averages about $3.80 in Pennsylvania (as of Tuesday afternoon).  “Given that high price of gasoline, consumers should be assured that they’re getting what they’re paying for,” he tells us.  Different engines are built to run on different octane levels, and the problem is that you may be paying for 93-octane, but receiving 87.  While the 87 may cost $3.80, Leonard says premium gasoline is averaging $4.06 in the Keystone State.  While Leonard does not believe discrepancies are widespread, he points out that motorists could take a double hit:  “You’re not getting what you pay for and secondly damaged engines and fuel gauges… can be expensive repairs.”    

The state Department of Agriculture currently tests gas pumps to ensure that you’re getting the gallon you paid for.  We’re not assured of the composition of that gallon of gas.  Sen. Greenleaf says SB 341 with give the Department of Ag the authority to implement and enforce the law.  He believes random testing will control costs while providing piece of mind.  The bill was unanimously voted out of the Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee last week.  Up next is the Senate floor.

Pennsylvania State Police Investigate More Crashes, Fewer Fatalities This Memorial Day Weekend

Pennsylvania State Police handled more crash investigations this Memorial Day Weekend than last but there were fewer fatalities.  13 people were killed in the 808 crashes investigated by State Police over the holiday weekend, compared to 16 deaths in 776 crashes during the 2010 Memorial Day weekend. Five of those killed were not wearing seatbelts one fatal crash was alcohol-related.    Last year, none of the 16 victims wore a seatbelt and two of the fatal crashes were alcohol-related.

While the number of fatalities this year was below the 2010 Memorial Day holiday, it was still higher than the 2009 holiday weekend, when nine people died in crashes investigated by state troopers. In addition, a total of 83 accidents this Memorial Day weekend are believed to be alcohol-related, compared to 70 last Memorial Day weekend.

State Police spokesman Jack Lewis says troopers arrested 357 motorists for driving under the influence; issued 7,934 speeding citations; cited 708 individuals for not wearing seat belts; and issued 115 citations to motorists for not securing children in child safety seats. The special enforcement period did not end with the holiday weekend. State Troopers are still in the midst of a Click it or Ticket campaign. They’ll be paying special attention to see if drivers are following the seatbelt law and children are properly restrained through June 5th.

Lottery Fund

House Committee Wants to Study PA Lottery

The State House Aging and Older Adult Services Committee has unanimously signed off on a comprehensive study of the Pennsylvania Lottery.  “I think it’s going to bring out a number of factors that we really need to consider, because we know that the Lottery system really does provide a lot of revenue for programs that benefit senior citizens,” says State Rep. Martin Causer (R-McKean), the prime sponsor of HR 106.  Causer spoke briefly to the committee, last week, before his legislation was brought up for a vote.  The study would be conducted by the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, and officials say the cost would be minimal. 

The Pennsylvania Lottery’s contribution to programs and services that benefit older Pennsylvanians is anything but minimal.  “The Lottery, over the course of its existence, has contributed over $19-billion dollars to funding for senior programs,” says State Rep. Tim Hennessey (R-Chester), chairman of the Aging and Older Adult Services Committee.  Since the last study of the Pennsylvania Lottery was conducted in 1994, Hennessey thinks HR 106 is a good idea: “To see in a sense how solvent it is and what it looks like going forward.” 

The largest program supported by the Lottery Fund is the Property Tax and Rent Rebate program, which was expanded with the advent of casino gaming in 2006.  PACE is the second biggest program paid for with dollars from the Lottery Fund; it provides prescription drug benefits to older Pennsylvanians.  According to a financial statement contained in Governor Tom Corbett’s budget proposal, the Lottery Fund is expected to begin the new fiscal year with a balance of $133-million dollars.  It also projects $3.14-billion dollars in gross ticket sales, which is up slightly from the current year.     

Rep. Causer told the committee that budgetary factors have changed since 1994, and casino gaming has been introduced, so it’s time to re-do the study.  Up next for HR 106 is the House floor.

Flags in the State Capitol Rotunda

PA Veterans Can Qualify for Benefits

Memorial Day is a time for all Americans to honor those who have lost their lives in defense of freedom.  It’s also a time to thank our surviving veterans – both young and old – for serving this country.  Here in Pennsylvania, there are more than 964,000 veterans to whom we owe a debt of gratitude.  While Pennsylvania’s veteran population topped 1.11-million in 2005, officials say we still rank fourth among states in terms of our population of veterans.

“Although the number of veterans in our state has gone down over the last five years, we’ve been able to help veterans secure more funding, particularly in pension and compensation benefits,” says Department of Military and Veterans Affairs spokeswoman Joan Nissley.  She tells us Pennsylvania veterans received $1.5-billion dollars in benefits in federal fiscal year 2010.  “That’s money that’s actually coming into our veterans’ pockets,” she says.  VA expenditures also totaled more than $3.8-billion in Pennsylvania in fiscal year 2010. 

Nissley also encourages those veterans who have recently returned from Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere to seek the benefits that they’ve earned.  “When it’s time for them and they’re ready they can come to us, or to a county director for veterans’ affairs, or to an accredited veterans’ service officer at one of the state veterans organizations,” Nissley says.  A good first stop for vets interested in learning more about their benefits is the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs website

On this Memorial Day, President Barack Obama has designated the hour beginning at 11am as the time for America to unite in prayer.  President Obama is also asking all Americans to observe the National Moment of Remembrance at 3pm local time.  This tradition dates back to 1950.

PNC Park

Beer in the Bleachers: Enjoy Responsibly

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (LCB) calls on sports fans to keep game days safe, and enjoy responsibly.  The message comes amid a growing number of reports of alcohol-related incidents at sporting events across the country.  Specifically, spokeswoman Stacey Witalec cites the near-fatal beating of a San Francisco Giants fan at the LA Dodgers home opener.  “Excessive use of alcohol may have been a contributing factor,” Witalec says.

In a statement, LCB chairman PJ Stapleton said safe and responsible consumption should be fans’ top priority.  “As a fan, you owe it to yourself, and to the family sitting next to you, to ensure they can leave the ballpark as safety as they arrived,” he continued.

Witalec also points out a University of Minnesota study that looked into fans’ behavior.  “8% of people were legally drunk, and 40% had something to drink while they were in the stadium.  So some concerning statistics.” 

For its part the LCB is reaching out to Pennsylvania’s colleges, major and minor league teams to help educate fans, and ensure they know their limits.  Witalec tells us the goal is to “start the conversation” about what changes need to be made to protect the families attending sporting events.

Pennsylvania’s Hiking Week Steps Off May 28th

 

Pennsylvania’s Hiking Week runs from May 28th through June 5th with more than 100 organized hikes statewide.   The week is marking its tenth anniversary this year of highlighting Pennsylvania’s many trails and walking paths.

It’s a way to introduce newcomers to the sport of hiking according to Curt Ashenfelter, Executive Director of the Keystone Trails Association.    He  says there are hikes for people with disabilities, hikes for beginners and hikes for those who can handle more strenuous activity. 

Ashenfelter says the entry cost for hiking is minimal.  He says basically, you need sturdy shoes such as hiking boots or trail running shoes.  To prepare for a hike, Ashenfelter says you just need to dress for the weather and bring some water and a snack.

He says wellness programs focus on diet and physical activity and hiking is a good way to get out in nature and hike up and down hills or hike around a pond, whatever is right for your aerobic capacity.   

There’s a list of the hikes that will be taking place during the week at http://www.explorepatrails.com/

You can also learn more about hiking at the Keystone Trails Association website.

Hiking Week is cosponsored by the Keystone Trails Association and the Pennsylvania Bureaus of State Parks and Forestry.  

Sate Capitol View from Commonwealth Ave.

Supporters Say Good Samaritan Bill Would Save Lives

Anyone under 21, who calls 911 to help a drunk friend, would have legal immunity from underage drinking charges under SB 448.  Senator John Rafferty (R-Montgomery) is the prime sponsor, and he thanked his colleagues on the Senate floor, following this week’s unanimous vote.  “This is a bill designed for good Samaritans to save lives, in a much-needed cause.” 

It has the support of organizations like the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association and Students Against Destructive Decisions.  “It’s better for them to have the opportunity to get the help for their peers, and to have a way to resolve it amongst themselves, that they’re not going to be liable for this,” says state coordinator for SADD Felicity Debacco-Erni.  She says underage drinking is a serious charge, and this bill addresses a serious issue.  “It’s a decision that unfortunately a lot of students are making not to get the help, because they’re fearful of their own legal issues that will come into play.” 

In a statement, Senator Rafferty said he doesn’t want to give minors a free pass, but neither does he want to discourage those who can help from seeking assistance.  The 911 caller must provide their name, and must remain on scene until emergency assistance arrives.  Before it gets to the governor’s desk, SB 448 must next pass the State House.  It’s now awaiting action in the House Judiciary Committee.

More Tornadoes Confirmed from Storms in the Past Week in Pennsylvania

As devastating tornadoes have hit parts of the country this spring, Pennsylvania has not been immune to the vicious storms.   Pennsylvania averages 15 to 20 tornadoes a year.  June and July are usually the peak months.  With the latest confirmations, the state has already reached the average.

The National Weather Service in State College sent teams out on Friday to review damage from the night before.  They confirmed at least four more tornadoes. All were given a preliminary rating of  EF1. The confirmations came from near Hogestown in Cumberland County,   in New Franklin in Franklin County, near  Dauphin Borough in Dauphin County, and in Schuylkill County near Schuykill Haven . Then on Friday, a waterspout was reported on Raystown Lake and another EF1 tornado was confirmed near Calvin in Huntingdon County.

Peter Young is a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in State College.  He says some people might think that the mountains protect parts of Pennsylvania from tornadoes, but that really has not been the case.  He says tornadoes have been confirmed across the state. He says in the 1985 outbreak, the state had large tornadoes go up one side of a mountain and come down the other side.

Tornadoes in Pennsylvania tend to be smaller in size and usually do not stay on the ground as long as storms that hit Tornado Alley.  But Pennsylvania has seen one EF5 in its history, during that deadly 1985 outbreak in Northwestern Pennsylvania which also included an EF4 that stayed on the ground for an hour.

Young says people should heed tornado warnings when they are issued, and take shelter.  He adds severe thunderstorms can spin off small tornadoes and those warnings should not be ignored.

U.S. House Subcommittee to look into Identity Theft Involving Tax Refunds

A United States House subcommittee plans to hold a hearing next week on a growing problem- identity thieves who use stolen Social Security numbers to claim other people’s tax refunds.   The scam starts with an identity thief obtaining a Social Security number through a variety of methods, such as phishing scams or malicious software. The thief then uses the number to file a tax return electronically.  The fraudulent returns are filed early and the refund is often applied to a prepaid credit card.

David Stewart, a spokesman for the Internal Revenue Service, says just this year alone, the IRS has stopped nearly 117,000 identity theft returns and protected more than $582 million from getting into the wrong hands. He says the IRS works with the   Department of Justice to criminally prosecute ID theft cases.   

The U.S. House subcommittee on Government Organization, Efficiency and Financial Management has scheduled a hearing on the issue for June 2nd.

Stewart urges taxpayers to guard their Social Security numbers carefully and avoid opening suspicious emails or suspicious links online.

He says the preventing identity theft is a top priority at the IRS, and they have committed significant resources to addressing and resolving cases of taxpayer identity theft.  

The IRS processes more than 142 million tax returns annually and issues over 109 million refunds.   If a victim of ID fraud files electronically, Stewart says they will get notification from the IRS indicating that they’ve already filed, because their Social Security number has already been used. He says the IRS is committed to working with taxpayers who are victims of such scams.