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.

Under the Capitol Dome

Human Services Concerns Raised as Budget Bill Advances

The State House has already advanced a $27.3-billion dollar budget bill, despite Democrats’ objections.  In fact all House Democrats voted against a budget that Minority Human Services chairman Mark Cohen (D-Philadelphia) calls “cruel and draconian” in many ways.  “We believe that as the Republicans in the Senate get to know this budget better… there’s going to be a role for us in the negotiations,” Cohen said as he convened a hearing of the House Democratic Policy Committee on Thursday. 

The hearing probed the proposed state budget’s impact on human services.  United Way of Pennsylvania President & CEO Tony Ross has a mixed reaction to the House GOP budget bill.  “We want to thank the House for restoring some funding for the Human Services Development Fund, and also we want to encourage lawmakers not to cut what works,” Ross says.  He tells us that investments in human services keep people healthy and reduce long-term costs to taxpayers. 

The $23.5-million dollar Human Services Development Fund (HSDF) was zeroed out of Governor Tom Corbett’s March budget proposal.  The House GOP budget bill restored $19.9-million of those dollars.  Ross says the HSDF is the only flexible source of funding that counties have to address human services needs.  “What’s so wonderful about it is that it allows each county to determine where their need is greatest.” 

Among Ross’s biggest budget concerns is the Homeowners Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program (HEMAP).  It too was zeroed out of the governor’s initial budget proposal, and House Republicans have restored about 75% of its funding.  Ross says the Federal Reserve has actually cited Pennsylvania’s program as more effective than the federal program for assisting citizens facing foreclosure. 

As the budget bill heads to the Senate, Ross says the United Way and others will continue their advocacy efforts.  “We hope that perhaps with the better than expected revenues… we can use some of that to restore and mitigate some of these cuts.”  Behavioral health services, rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters are all facing 10% budget cuts under HB 1485.

PA Budget Debate

State Budget Battle Shifts to Senate Side of the Capitol

The budget bill’s next stop is the Senate Appropriations Committee, following this week’s largely party line vote in the State House.  Senate Appropriations chair Jake Corman (R-Centre) tells us they’ll spend the next week or so reviewing the legislation, and hope to have an action plan by the first or second week of June.  When asked about the $27.3-billion dollar bottom line, Corman said, “We’re certainly not locked into any number.  It could go lower, it could go higher.” One of the most contentious parts of this week’s House budget debate was what to do with this year’s revenue, which has so far exceeded expectations to the tune of $500-million dollars. 

On the issue of higher education, the House budget bill would fund the 14-State System schools at 85% of the current year’s appropriation.  State Related Universities (like Penn State and Pitt) would receive 75% of the current year’s funding.  While this compares favorably to the roughly 50% cuts that Governor Tom Corbett proposed in March, Corman says he’d like to do even better and show some parity between the State System and State Related universities.  “We’ll review that to see where monies are available… but the House did a pretty good job in showing commitment to higher ed,” Corman says.  Senator Corman’s 34th Senatorial District includes State College Borough, the home of Penn State University

Corman says, overall, the House did a good job crafting a budget.  “The Senate will have a different set of priorities I’m sure, and we’ll put our stamp on it.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that we disagree with what they did, just that we maybe have different priorities.”  The process will result in a Senate version of the budget, from which legislative leaders and the Corbett Administration can negotiate.  Like all legislative leaders, Corman is well aware of the June 30th budget deadline.  “The people of Pennsylvania have been put through enough over the past eight years,” he says.  The budget process is currently running ahead of schedule.

Honeybees

PSU Leads Multidisciplinary Effort to Save Honeybees

Researchers from seven universities, beekeepers in every state, economists, epidemiologists and others have joined the Bee Informed PartnershipSenior extension associate at Penn State Dennis vanEngelsdorp is leading the project, and tells us honeybees are essential to agriculture. “About one in every three bites of food we eat is either directly or indirectly pollinated by honeybees,” he says. 

The problem is that for the past five years, an average of 30% of honeybee colonies are being lost overwinter.  “That means about one in every three colonies dies every single winter for the past five winters,” vanEngelsdorp says.  He tells us most beekeepers would be happy if they lost about 15% of their colonies.  So the goal of the Bee Informed Partnership is to cut the mortality rate in half, over the next five years. 

Beekeepers are now being surveyed on how many bees they’ve lost, and what management practices they used last year.  “Even though the average is 30%, some beekeepers are losing more than 50% and some are losing less than 10%,” vanEngelsdorp tells us.  The Partnership will share the ‘best practices,’ as determined by their research, to help beekeepers manage their hives.

The Bee Informed Partnership is a five year, $5-million dollar nationwide program, funded by the US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Don’t Pick up a Tick Hitchhiker this Summer

Spring and early summer are times of year when the ticks that transmit Lyme disease tend to be most active. Health officials are reminding people to be vigilant when they’re outdoors.    

Dr. Stephen Ostroff, acting Pennsylvania Physician General, Pennsylvania Department of Health, says the deer tick is tiny, and people may not notice it right away. He says in order for the infection to be transmitted, the tick has to be attached for at least 24 hours.  Dr. Ostroff says that’s why it’s important to do a tick check after you’ve been outdoors.  He says taking a shower or bath can also help reduce the likelihood of exposure to Lyme disease, because the soap and water may wash the ticks off before they can attach.  

While hiking and camping can put you at risk for contact with the deer tick, Dr. Ostroff says most Lyme disease tends to occur in the areas around people’s homes, especially those that abut forest locations.

Dr. Ostroff says it’s best to wear long sleeves and long pants whenever possible, avoid areas with high grass and brush and use a repellent.  Some studies indicate light-colored clothing does not attract the ticks as much as darker clothing.

Dr. Ostroff says 90% of all of the Lyme disease in this country occurs along the Eastern Seaboard, especially in Eastern Pennsylvania.  He says Pennsylvania is one of the high incidence Lyme disease locations in the United States.

Symptoms of Lyme disease most often include a bulls-eye rash.  However, some people may not detect the rash or in some cases it may not be present. Dr. Ostroff says anyone who develops such a rash, or develops unexplained symptoms of fever, fatigue, muscle aches and joint pain, should contact their doctor and indicate they may have been in an area where ticks are located.

Untreated, Lyme disease can lead to arthritis, heart and neurological problems.

May is Lyme disease Awareness Month. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says Lyme disease is the most commonly reported tick borne illness in the United States.

 

Grand Jury Report

Grand Jury Report Will Not Gather Dust

A statewide investigating grand jury released its 102-page report on the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board on Tuesday.  Chairman of the State House Gaming Oversight Committee Curt Schroder (R-Chester) calls the report a “stinging indictment” on the operation of the Gaming Control Board since its inception.  Schroder says it is lawmakers’ duty to follow-up.  “I intend to hold some hearings on the report after we get the budget out of the way… and then develop legislation accordingly.”

One piece of legislation that’s already passed the House would move the Bureau of Investigations and Enforcement to an independent agency.  That move happens to be recommendation #3 of 21 in the grand jury report.  “I don’t know how many grand jury reports it’s going to take before the Gaming Control Board, chairman Fajt… as well as the State Senate accepts the verdict out there,” Schroder says, pointing to an earlier Dauphin County grand jury that reached the same conclusion. 

In a statement, Gaming Control Board chairman Greg Fajt called it a rehash of “old news.”  He defended their successes, and pointed out that after two years of investigation there were no arrests, no presentments and no indictments.  “They found no criminal activity because there was, in fact, no criminal activity to be found,” Fajt stated. 

But Rep. Schroder says the response gives him no confidence that the PGCB understands the problem, or even accepts that there was or is a problem.  “Chairman Fajt can crow all he wants about the fact that there were no indictments.  Nonetheless the report found many violations of the law, and many instances of just outright corruption.”  Schroder tells us one of the problems is that violations of the gaming law “unfortunately” don’t carry criminal penalties.

Harrisburg's skyline

Pennsylvania House Passes $27.3 Billion Budget

    Over Democrat objections, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives has given it’s approval to a $27.3 billion, no-tax increase state budget that restores some proposed cuts in education. The House vote was 109-92 and the action leaves 37 days for the House and Senate to work out any differences before sending a final budget to Governor Tom Corbett’s desk.

    House Republicans say they have restored $200 million in basic education cuts and $300 million for higher education, compared to the governor’s original spending proposal unveiled in March. The GOP found the additional dollars for education by counting on savings in the Department of Public Welfare, and not by tapping into a projected half-billion dollar budgetary surplus this year. Governor Tom Corbett has made it clear that he wants that money to go into reserve funds or be used to pay down debt.

    Democrats argue that the surplus money should be used to offset some of the remaining education cuts, saying the House budget still cuts a billion dollars from existing education spending. They characterize the budget as “anti-middle class,” primarily because they say state cuts in funding for local services will result in increased county and local levies, including higher property taxes.

    The budget bill now goes to the state Senate and negotiations between the two chambers will determine the final spending plan, which is due by June 30th. It’s been nearly a decade since a governor has signed a budget before that fiscal year deadline.