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.


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.

Lawmakers Introduce Bill to Remove Ban on Teachers Wearing Religious Garb, Symbols in the Classroom.

Pennsylvania is one of only two states that still ban teachers from wearing any type of religious garb or symbol.   A bipartisan effort is underway to lift that ban. Representative Eugene DePasquale, a York Democrat, says it’s about ending religious discrimination in the public.  He says statutes banning teachers from wearing any religious garb or symbols were implemented in a time of anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish sentiments at the turn of the last century.

Representative DePasquale says Pennsylvania and Nebraska are the only states that have not repealed their religious garb statutes. He says it is not about having teachers proselytize in the classroom; it’s simply about allowing them to wear an emblem of faith as they teach.  

House bill 1581 would amend Section 1112 of the Public School Code to remove the prohibition on teachers wearing any religious garb, mark, emblem or insignia while in the performance of their duties.

Representative Will Tallman, an Adams County Republican, is cosponsor of the bill.  He says it’s a freedom of expression issue and will not be disruptive to the educational process.

Under the current law, a teacher could be punished for wearing any type of religious garb or symbol in the classroom, even if their faith required it.   A public school director can be held criminally liable for not enforcing the law.

Representative DePasquale says the bill would not block teacher dress codes.  

Sandra Strauss, director of Public Advocacy at Pennsylvania Council of Churches, says it’s far past time to repeal this ban.  She says the council has always supported religious expression in terms of dress.   

The lawmakers discussed the bill Tuesday at a capitol news conference.

PA Gaming

Grand Jury Report Criticizes Gaming Control Board

The 102-page document compiled by the 31st Statewide Investigating Grand Jury paints an unflattering picture of the state’s gaming regulators.  It cites a political process that neglected or ignored its policy objectives, failed to protect the public from unlawful gaming practices, and avoided transparency.  The report includes 21-recommendations ranging from a new venue for the Bureau of Investigations and Enforcement, to a significant overhaul of the current employees of the board, and annual audits. 

Gaming Control Board chairman Greg Fajt released a statement calling the report simply a rehash of “old news” at a significant cost to taxpayers.  Fajt says the grand jury met for two years and found no criminal activity, because there was none to be found.  Fajt recognizes there were “minor missteps along the way,” but notes that the PGCB was the first newly created state agency in 30-years.  He maintains the Gaming Board has been a success. 

Copies of the report have been delivered to Governor Tom Corbett, all four legislative caucuses, the PA Supreme Court, Auditor General, Treasurer and others.


Teen “Sexting” Bill Passes PA House

The State House voted overwhelmingly in favor of legislation that creates the offense of teen “sexting.”  The bill would apply to nude photographs distributed among teenagers, via cell phones and even computers.  The prime sponsor is State Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), who says the legislation will make teens think before they “sext.”  At the same time, Grove says, it would provide a more appropriate punishment than what’s allowed for today.  He says current law treats teens’ “sexting” as a serious felony under child pornography laws.  His bill (HB 815) would make the crime a second degree misdemeanor.  “It ensures that students don’t ruin the rest of their life because of making some childish decisions, and sending nude photographs of themselves or others,” Grove says. 

Teens wouldn’t be thrown in jail under Grove’s bill.  “The judges have the ability to order community service, some form of educational program and a fine if they want to go that route,” Grove says.  The bill would allow a teen’s record to be expunged, and Grove says that compared favorably with the alternative in current law.  He tells us felony convictions would follow a young offender for life, and even affect their future job applications.   

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association (PDAA) supports the bill.  Executive director Richard Long says it provides a penalty that’s more in line with the actual conduct that’s occurring with these teen “sexting” incidents.  “The current law is not adequately tailored to reflect what’s going on… just ten years ago there was no such thing as sexting,” Long tells us. 

The bill only applies to teens; adults would still be prosecuted under child pornography laws if they’re involved in the sending or receiving of nude photos of minors.  HB 815 passed the House with a 178 – 20 vote.  It now heads to the State Senate for consideration.

Linda Kelly Confirmed as Pennsylvania Attorney General

    The state Senate voted to confirm several appointees on Monday, most notably giving a positive nod to Governor Tom Corbett’s choice to replace him as Pennsylvania Attorney General. Linda Kelly was confirmed on a unanimous 50-0 vote and will finish out the remaining 20 months of the term. 

    The office became vacant when former Attorney General Tom Corbett was elected Governor last year. At the time of the governor’s inauguration, the post was filled on an interim basis by 1st Deputy Attorney General William Ryan. Ryan has served as acting Attorney General for a little more than 4 months.

    Kelly’s background includes stints with the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office and the office of U.S. Attorney for Western Pennsylvania during a 30+ year career as a prosecutor.

    With Senate confirmation, Linda Kelly becomes only the 2nd woman to hold the office in Pennsylvania’s history. She has promised not to run for election to the office in 2012, a contributing factor to her easy nomination process.

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.