Tuition Will Increase at Pennsylvania’s 14 State Owned Universities

Tuition will be going up for students attending Pennsylvania’s 14 state owned universities.  The Board of Governors of the State System of Higher Education has approved the increase to help make up part of the gap left by the state budget.

In-state students will pay an additional 7.5%  for tuition, or $218 per semester and 50% more for their technology fee, an increase of $58 per semester for the 2011-2012 academic year.  The tuition for out-of-state students was still being calculated.  Chancellor John Cavanaugh told the board the schools will still face a gap of about $33 million after the increases.

Dr. Cavanaugh says a 1% increase in tuition translates into $8.5 million.  The total gap was $112 million, including a reduction of more than $90 million in state funding under the budget approved by the General Assembly this week. The Governor’s original budget plan had called for an even steeper cut in state funding.  Dr. Cavanaugh says the system had been saying all along they would not totally make up the difference through tuition increases.

Prior to the vote, Steve Hicks, President of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF), told the board they’ve done a great job in the last six years keeping tuition down, maybe too good a job. He says Pennsylvania had  the lowest tuition increases in the country for a public system for the last six years, going from above the national average, to $600 below it.  He asked the board to vote for an increase that fills most of the gap left by the legislature.

APSCUF Vice President Ken Mash says the Office of the Chancellor has worked very hard to look for areas to reduce costs.  He says the presidents and everyone at the universities have risen to the challenge, seeking to preserve high quality education while repeatedly reducing expenditures.  He says efficiency has reached its pinnacle, the budget ax has simply hit bone.

Board of Governors student representative Leonard Altieri III, who attends West Chester University, said students knew a tuition increase was coming.  He said he’s extremely comfortable with this increase, because students see what happens when the schools don’t have the funds, with programs that get cut from the campuses.

The increase is the highest since the 2002-2003 school year, when tuition was raised by 9%.

The state system schools are Bloomsburg, California, Cheney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock and West Chester Universities.


AAA Projects Fewer Travelers this 4th of July

According to AAA forecasts for the holiday weekend, not quite as many people will travel this year as last.  AAA is projecting a 2.5% to 2.7%  decline in the number of travelers overall. Automobile travel is expected to be down about 3%, while air travel will be up about 9%. However, 84% of those making trips over the Independence Day weekend are expected to drive.

Jim Lardear, Director of Public and Government Affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic, says it’s important to remember that 2010 saw big gains in travel coming off of the recession. He says this year’s projection shows people are feeling the pinch from higher fuel costs.

Lardear says the fuel prices are hitting lower income families more. He says one of the most striking things they found was in travel preferences for families earning under $50,000 a year. He says they were more willing to stay closer to home or scale back a little on what they spend for hotels, eating out or shopping during  the trip. The average travel distance is expected to be down about 7%.

Lardear says families making $100,000 or more  indicated they’re going to spend a little more money on things like going to a sporting event at their destination.  Median spending is expected to be up 25% this year.

Lardear adds that Pennsylvania offers a variety of destinations that people can drive to on one tank of gas, if they’re interested in  a lake, an amusement park; there are a lot of ways to take a fun vacation without incurring a lot of additional costs.  He says you can scale it back, but still afford to get away and have a very nice time.

Lawmakers May Give Voters More Say on School Tax Hikes

Governor Tom Corbett calls a local property tax reform bill crucial for this budget season.  Specifically, he supports the removal of exceptions that allow school districts to raise property taxes above the Act 1 inflationary index, without voter approval.  “I believe that if [school districts] are going to go beyond the rate of inflation than they ought to have the right to vote on it,” Corbett said on Radio PA’s monthly “Ask the Governor” program. 

An apparent compromise has started to move in the State House, which would remove many exceptions and tighten several others.  Executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) Jay Himes tells us the most important exceptions would remain: pensions and special education.  “It’s good that they’re in.  Unfortunately – particularly with regard to the pension exception – they are in with a very limited form.”  Himes says state-mandated pension costs aren’t controlled by inflation.  Rather, pension costs are going up by hundreds of millions of dollars every year, for the next several years. 

 The House voted 103 – 98 to amend SB 330 with the property tax reform language on Wednesday night.  During floor debate, Republican Leader Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) said schools could still raise property taxes up to the Act 1 index (1.4% next year).  “You need referendum when it is at or above that index,” Turzai said.  But PASBO’s Jay Himes says Pennsylvania’s history with school property tax referenda has been one-sided.  “It’s going to be a huge uphill struggle that will take additional resources and additional efforts for school districts.”

Supporters say the change would hold school districts more accountable.  On “Ask the Governor” Corbett said teachers’ contracts are one of the biggest components of increasing school budgets.  “And I have seen across Pennsylvania, in the last few months, contracts that are 3, 4, 5% increases per year.”

Operating Budget Awaits Governor Tom Corbett’s Signature

A $27.15- billion dollar state spending plan has now passed both chambers of the legislature, with zero Democratic support.  Wednesday night’s House vote was 109 – 92.  Two Republicans joined all House Democrats in opposition to the bill

House Republican Appropriations chair Bill Adolph (R-Delaware) says it represents about a 4% reduction in general spending.  “This is only the third time in nearly 40-years that Pennsylvania will be spending less than the prior year budget,” Adolph said during House floor debates.  He contends the budget is built upon realistic and sustainable revenues.  “This budget will not create a deficit by spending beyond our means.” 

The Republican-backed spending plan would tap into some of the higher-than-anticipated state revenues, which have accumulated this year, but Adolph says they do not rely on that money to sustain the budget.  Most state officials expect the final surplus number to be in the range of $700-million dollars.  While many Democrats say more of that money should be spent to mitigate painful spending cuts, Republicans are quick to point to a long list of liabilities, including: growing pension obligations, state debt payments, a potential Mcare settlement, an unresolved transportation funding gap and more.

As Republicans tout the fiscal responsibility of the spending plan, Democrats – like Appropriations chair Joe Markosek (D-Allegheny) – say they relied on gimmicks to keep the spend number artificially low.  “This is a budget that is full of hide and seek and sleight of hand,” Markosek said.  “This is not open government.”   

Democrats complained even more loudly about more than a billion dollars in cuts to basic and higher education.  The 14-universities in the State System of Higher Education will see an 18% funding cut, and we may soon learn whether it will significantly affect tuition rates.  The ‘basic education funding’ line item, in the budget, stands at $5.35-billion dollars.  That’s down from $5.77-billion dollars last year.  But that number included federal stimulus money, and Republicans say this year’s state investment in basic education is the largest ever.

In all, Pennsylvania is losing about $2.7-billion dollars in stimulus money, which was used to balance last year’s budget.  Senate Republican leaders say the loss of federal stimulus dollars means that difficult but necessary budget cuts needed to be made.   

The legislative work isn’t over yet, as there are still auxiliary budget bills that need to be enacted.  But, if Governor Tom Corbett signs the budget today, it will break a streak of eight consecutive late budgets in Pennsylvania.

Farm Bureau Firm in Opposition to Sunday Hunting

The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau is reaffirming its opposition to Sunday hunting, following a resolution adopted by state game officials on Tuesday.   

 The Pennsylvania Board of Game Commissioners adopted a resolution to support Sunday hunting, by a 4 to 3 vote with one commissioner abstaining.  The resolution urges the General Assembly to repeal the ban, citing consistent declines in hunting participation by resident and nonresident hunters over the past several decades.  The resolution says Sunday hunting is an effective means of recruiting new hunters and is expected to generate a substantial increase in out-of-state license sales. Game Commission staff will present the resolution to the House Game and Fisheries Committee, which has been holding public hearings on the issue.

Pennsylvania Farm Bureau spokesman Mark O’Neill says farmers are overwhelmingly opposed to any expansion of Sunday hunting.  The reasons include basic property rights, wanting a day of quiet on their farms, and religious reasons.

O’Neill says farmers and other private land owners own about 80% of the huntable land in Pennsylvania. They feel strongly that their opinions should be taken very seriously.

O’Neill says farmers are also concerned that the legislature could leave a final decision up to the Board of Game Commissioners. He says there has been legislation in the past that would have done that, and they expect legislation to be proposed  later this year.  He says that’s also something the Farm Bureau strongly opposes.

O’Neill adds that farmers are not the only ones who want a day of rest from hunting.  He says hikers, bikers, horseback riders and others take advantage of  Sundays.

Forcing Act 47 on Harrisburg?

    Under the state’s Act 47, cities can be declared financially distressed, setting the stage for debt restructuring and other recovery mechanisms. Under a bill passed by the Senate Tuesday, the process could be taken a step further, giving the state the power to establish a management board and mandate Act 47 for cities like Harrisburg.

Senator Jeffrey Piccola (R-Dauphin)

Piccola Seeks to Mandate Act 47 for Harrisburg

    The state’s capital city is in trouble, and officials are mulling over a possible bankruptcy filing that critics say would be devastating. The Senate bill, sponsored by Jeff Piccola (R-Dauphin) would block such a filing. The bill also includes a provision that would withhold state funding if the city or management board fails to “identify, sell, lease or dispose of its assets.”

    The management board would be comprised of three members, two appointed by the governor and one by county commissioners where the city is located. While the measure would affect any city of the 3rd class, the bill is a direct response to the ongoing problems in Harrisburg, which is groaning under the weight of enormous debt mostly tied to a financially disastrous incinerator project.

    Piccola says Harrisburg officials have “thumbed their nose” at Act 47 for over a year and bankruptcy is simply not an option.

    The bill now goes to the state House of Representatives.

State Capitol

Senate Passes Budget Bill as Deadline Looms

Sen. Dominic Pileggi

Sen. Dominic Pileggi (R-Delaware)

The new fiscal year begins on Friday, but Pennsylvania may still have its first on-time budget in eight years.  The State Senate voted along party lines (30 to 20) to pass a GOP-backed $27.15-billion dollar spending plan Tuesday evening.   “This year marks a return to a state budget paid for with state revenues,” says Senate Republican Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Delaware), referring to the $7-billion dollars in federal stimulus money Pennsylvania received over the past three years.  “It is difficult but necessary to reset state spending to reflect that new reality.” 

While the bottom-line is more than a billion dollars below the current General Fund budget, Senator Pileggi points out that the bill increases basic education funding by $268-million and higher education funding by $368-million, compared to the Governor’s March 8th budget proposal.

Senate Democrats still say the budget pain doesn’t have to be so severe. “We’re sitting on an extra, what will probably be by June 30th, an extra $700-million dollars in budget surplus,” says Democratic Appropriations Chair Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia). 

But that’s a “so-called” surplus, according to Governor Tom Corbett.  “Yes more revenue has come in, but we still have a deficit… We have spending that has to be done in the future, we don’t think that next year is going to be much rosier – if at all – than this year,” Corbett told reporters on Tuesday. 

While Corbett says spending matches revenues in the current budget bill, he knows that it’s not a done deal yet.  “Until there is a budget, until I have an opportunity to sign one, there is no budget,” he says.  The budget bill now awaits House action.

Governor Tom Corbett

Expanded Castle Doctrine Becomes Law

State Rep. Scott Perry

State Rep. Scott Perry Addresses a May Gun Rights Rally at the Capitol

Law abiding gun owners’ rights to self defense just got stronger in Pennsylvania.  Governor Tom Corbett signed the expanded “Castle Doctrine” privately on Tuesday.  “It codifies existing law… it codifies the self defense law under common law,” Corbett said in response to questions at an unrelated news conference.  

“If you believe that your home is your castle as I do… then you also believe you have the right to defend it,” said State Rep. Scott Perry (R-York) at a capitol gun rights rally in May.  Perry is the bill’s prime sponsor.  

The expanded Castle Doctrine eliminates one’s “duty to retreat” before using deadly force if they are under attack, virtually anywhere they are legally allowed to be.  Currently, a gun owner’s right to stand their ground ends at their front door.  The new law takes effect in 60-days.  

CeaseFire PA had recently delivered more than 4,000 petitions to Governor Corbett – urging him to veto the expanded Castle Doctrine.  “This expansion we think is a dangerous and unnecessary change to that law, which means that now you can use deadly force in public spaces even if you could have walked away safely,” says CeaseFire PA’s executive director Max Nacheman.  

The news conference, referenced earlier, was held as Governor Tom Corbett publicly signed the “Fair Share Act” into law Tuesday.  It is designed to ensure that defendants in civil lawsuits are only responsible to pay their fair share.  Under the previous system of joint & several liability, defendants with as little as 1% of the fault could be on the hook for 100% of the damages.

Web Based Anti-bullying Program Being Introduced in Time for the new School Year

A new web-based program aimed at bullying is ready for the new

school year– free of charge.  “The Bullying Academy” was being introduced this week at the International Society for Technology in Education Conference in Philadelphia .

It’s  a project of the Students in the Know Foundation. Executive Director Tommy Walser says the program goes through the major topics of bullying for students in grades 4 through 8, including cyber bullying which many current school programs do not address.  

Walser says cyber bullying can happen through any electronic device. He feels it’s more dangerous than regular bullying because it can happen any time of day, out of the sigh of teachers and parents.  

Walser says the program is all web based, on line and available immediately to students.  It allows them to click on links and view videos.

Schools can register for the program at Walser says they need to fill out a form with relative information, such as which state they’re in.  Once a school registers and is entered in the database, its students can visit the web site and register individually for the program. 

Walser says the  program requires no additional software or extensive training. It can be implemented during any class period or extracurricular activity.

Walser says they’re trying to teach kids that everyone has civil rights and bullying becomes a legal issue when you violate those civil rights.


Firefighter Cancer Presumption Legislation Heads to Governor


The state Senate has given approval to the Firefighter Cancer Presumption legislation and it’s heading to the Governor for his signature.

House bill 797 won unanimous approval from the state Senate on Monday.  It would cover firefighters who contract cancer on the job under the state’s Workers Compensation Act. 

State Senator John Gordner (R-Columbia), chair of the Labor and Industry Committee, says the House sponsor, Representative Frank Farry, is a firefighter.

Senator Gordner says a lot of work went into the bill and they have municipal groups on board.  But he says most importantly, they’re doing this for the firefighters. He says they never know what type of facility or dwelling or business that they might go in to, and they do not know what harmful chemicals may be in there when they go to fight a fire.

Similar legislation passed in the last session but was vetoed by Governor Rendell. Some small changes have been made this time. Senator Gordner says Governor Corbett enthusiastically supports the legislation.  

Senator Jay Costa (D-Allegheny), Senate Minority Chair, commended the work of Senators Gordner and Christine Tartaglione (D-Philadelphia), saying it’s another example of two committee chairs working very cooperatively together to address significant issues that impact the lives of working men and women in this Commonwealth.

Senator David Argall (R-Schuylkill), who introduced the senate version of the bill, supported the house version, calling it an example of cooperation on a lot of fronts, bipartisan and bicameral.