Harrisburg's skyline

AFSCME Council 13 Reports Tentative Deal with Corbett Administration

One of the biggest state employee unions is reporting on its website that it has reached a tentative agreement with the Corbett Administration. AFSCME Council 13 says the deal was struck around 11pm Wednesday night, but so far neither side is releasing any details. The tentative contract must still be ratified by the union membership, a process which will begin with a policy committee meeting in Harrisburg on Saturday.

AFSCME Council 13 is one of about a dozen-and-a-half state employee unions whose contracts are set to expire on June 30th. Talks with another of the big unions, Service Employees International Union Local 668, have been less fruitful. The union described Wednesday’s session as “frustrating,” with only minor movement as the two sides remain “miles apart.” Those talks broke off around 10pm last night and are set to resume today.

Marcellus Shale

Marcellus Shale Job Creation Numbers Questioned

A new report questions the number of jobs created by the Marcellus Shale boom between 2007 and 2010. The “not so mighty Marcellus” might describe the results of their analysis according to Dr. Stephen Hertzenberg, Executive Director of the Keystone Research Center.  He says their review shows less than 10,000 jobs created rather than the 48,000 reported in recent statements and commentaries.

Dr. Hertzenberg says job creation differs from new hires, because you also have to look at quits, firings and retirements.  He says you have to look at both sides of the employment ledger.

Dr. Hertzenberg says the Center is trying to get the record straight because when people have a distorted picture of how many jobs are being created by Marcellus, that’s “a lousy foundation for good policy.” He adds Pennsylvania should develop a Marcellus shale economic development policy that includes training and placement of Pennsylvania workers in Marcellus jobs and invests in industries that supply the natural gas drilling industry.

Kathryn Klaber, Executive Director of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, questions the timing of the report, saying it doesn’t add to the debate.

Klaber says it’s a good thing to be creating these jobs and it makes no sense to be quibbling over the numbers, when there’s widespread agreement that the  numbers are large.

Klaber says there are a lot of different ways to look at these jobs. There are jobs in the core industry; directly in drilling and mid-stream development.  There are thousands more jobs, according to Klaber, in industries that support those jobs through the supply chain.

Klaber says Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry statistics show unemployment in the counties with Marcellus Shale development remains below the state average. She says the most important thing “we can do is keep our eye on the ball related to the natural gas industry and what it could mean for the state’s economy.” She says there are incredibly good jobs being created, making it an integral part of a rather sluggish economy.

Food and Drug Administration Unveils New Cigarette Warning Labels

The Food and Drug Administration has unveiled nine new cigarette warning labels. The warnings will take up the top 50% of a pack of cigarettes and 20% of an advertisement for cigarettes.  They include graphic images of diseases related to smoking, such as lung disease and oral cancer. Tobacco companies have until September 2012 to comply.

Dr. Lawrence Deyton, Director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, says the warning labels have not changed in 25 years.  He says the average smoker no longer realizes that there’s a health warning on a pack of cigarettes.  He says scientific literature shows inclusion of a graphic image and a specific warning does help smokers increase their personal knowledge about their risk.

Dr. Deyton says for decades, the rates of smoking had been declining, but in the 7- 8 years, it has leveled off to 20%.  He says 1 in 5 high school kids smoke cigarettes.  The new labels are required as part of a law passed by Congress,  the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Control Act.

Dr. Deyton says the new warnings convey the very personal and true risk of cigarette smoking.

He says the FDA started with 36 images and tested them extensively to determine which had the most impact.  He says they considered whether it educated the person looking at it, whether the person could recall the image and whether it changed the viewer’s beliefs about their own health risk and their intent to quit, or not to start smoking.

He says the warning also includes the 1-800-Quit-Now number, the national helpline. He says when a smoker picks up a pack with the new labels, there’s a resource they can act on instantly to get the help they need to stop smoking.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says tobacco use is a leading cause of premature and preventable death in the United States.

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.