Super Committee to Meet, Obama to Speak on Same Day

The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction convenes for the first time on Capitol Hill this Thursday.   Only a matter of hours later, President Barack Obama will address Congress and the nation on jobs.  Republican Pat Toomey (R-PA) will be there for both events. 

Tapped by the Senate Republican Leader to serve on the bipartisan, bicameral super committee, the first-term Senator says it’s hard to overstate the seriousness of Washington’s fiscal problems.  “We are running annual deficits of almost one and a half trillion dollars, we’re borrowing 40-cents of every dollar that we spend,” Toomey recently told a jobs roundtable in Tioga County. 

The super committee has until November 23rd to craft a plan that will save the federal government at least $1.5-trillion dollars over the next ten years.  “We can look anywhere in the federal budget that we can find an opportunity to have the savings, and we could include tax reform.  I think there are ways that we could reform the tax code that would generate strong economic growth,” Toomey says. 

Deficit reduction will dominate Toomey’s life for the next several months, but the issue is closely tied to the nation’s economic and employment woes.  While Toomey doesn’t know what to expect from President Obama’s jobs speech, he has his hopes.  “I’m hoping that the President will give us a strongly pro-growth message.  I hope that there’s some awareness, some realization that the huge deficit spending hasn’t worked.  The idea that the government can borrow and spend America to prosperity, that has failed,” Toomey said after his Tioga County event.    

The Joint Select Committee’s organizational meeting will be open to the public and the press.  President Obama’s jobs speech will precede the opening salvo of the NFL football season, and will be televised on all of the major networks.

Investors Warned to Watch for Scams During Times of Market Ups and Downs

The recent ups and downs on Wall Street have made average investors concerned, and it’s during times like these that scam artists and flawed get rich quick schemes tend to increase.    Sometimes it involves a legitimate investment that’s misrepresented as low risk, other times it involves a rip off.

Michael Byrne, chief counsel for the Pennsylvania Securities Commission, says often, these schemes follow the headlines, such as real estate or energy deals.  He says generally people who pitch these investments will be telling you they’re safe, appealing to your fear.

Byrne says it may be tempting to pull your money out of legitimate investments, thinking you’re cutting your losses. He says if you pull those assets out, you’re locking in your loss and not giving it a chance to recover.  He says over the long haul, the stock market does recover.

Byrne says be careful with exotic securities.  He points to investments like viaticals, saying  there’s a lot of fraud in the life settlement area. He says people should also be alert for mirror trading pitches, Ponzi schemes and affinity fraud, where people use a common background in an effort to gain your confidence, to get  money for risky investments.

Byrne says there are some opportunities that can be legitimate investments, if you know what you’re doing.   Those include private placements. But he says they’re not for everybody;  you have to fully understand the investment and have good advice. He adds that private placements are not liquid.

The Pennsylvania Securities Commission cautions you to do business only with licensed brokers and investment advisors, and report any suspicious offers.

Byrne says it’s best to get a second opinion from your accountant or lawyer or an independent adviser before you invest.   He says you should check with the commission at 1-800-600-0007 to see if the person is registered.

Three Novel Influenza-A Cases Linked to Pennsylvania Agricultural Fair

Three children have come down with a novel strain of flu, and the one link among them is an agricultural fair last month in southwestern Pennsylvania.    All three children attended the Washington County Agricultural Fair between August 13th and 20th.

The cases are similar to previous rare human infections with the swine-origin H3N2 viruses, but they’re unique because they contain a genetic component of the H1N1 virus.

Martin Raniowski, Deputy Secretary for Health Planning and Assessments at the Pennsylvania Department of Health, says officials still can’t say how the illness was transmitted. He says they’re looking at whether there was human-to-human transmission or animal-to-human transmission, but they just don’t know that yet.

Ranowski emphasizes they’re not telling people to avoid fairs or other public venues– they should just use the normal precautions for any influenza or illness. Those precautions include Washington your hands often and keeping your hands away from your face and mouth. He says if you’re not feeling well, stay away from work, school and social gatherings.

Raniowski says the reason this flu is getting so much attention is because it’s a novel strain. He says it’s not that this is a stronger influenza, but it appears to be the next change in influenza. The Health Department and the CDC are conducting increased surveillance and tracking in southwestern Pennsylvania, as well aas setting up informational booths about influenza at agricultural fairs.

Raniowski can’t say yet if this year’s flu vaccine will protect against this novel strain. He says they are looking at whether it will provide some protection.  He says people are encouraged to get flu shots to protect against the seasonal flu they know is coming this year.


New Terms of Service for UC Debit Cards

A new company is administering Pennsylvania’s unemployment insurance debit cards, and new terms of service are in place.  According to Department of Labor & Industry spokesman Sean Yeakle, the new agreement offers more free withdrawals and more ATM locations.  “More than 430,000 Pennsylvanians receive unemployment compensation through a debit card, and under the terms of service governing this new program we estimate they’re going to safe about $3.5-million dollars in fees.” 

“That’s money that will go back into the economy and serve struggling Pennsylvanians and their families,” Treasurer Rob McCord said in a statement.  The Department of Labor & Industry and Treasury Department had been working together to reduce fees – many of which are uncommon to traditional debit card users – under the new agreement with ACS. 

Under the new service terms, Wells-Fargo ATMs will now be considered out-of network.  PNC Bank and MoneyPass ATMs will be considered in-network.  Gone is the “denial fee,” which had been applied if an attempted withdrawal exceeded available funds.  However, out-of-network ATM transactions will see fees increase from $1.50 to $1.75.  Impacted Pennsylvanians can learn more online.    

Pennsylvania’s unemployment compensation system started going “paperless” in 2007.  Today, all payments are made electronically.  “That’s definitely saving Pennsylvania taxpayers money in terms of the millions of dollars associated with printing and mailing the checks, and it’s also reduces the opportunity for fraud,” Yeakle says.

Hurricane Irene Highlights Dangers of Falling Trees, Need to Inventory Those Around Your Home

Tragically, a number of the deaths from Hurricane Irene were blamed on fallen trees or tree limbs, including three in Pennsylvania.   Robert Wells, associate director of Arboriculture outreach at the Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania, says people need to think proactively about tree health.  He says we usually think of trees biologically, but we should also consider them as structural items and we should know if they have any weaknesses that could cause them to fail.

Wells says those problems are often not apparent to the untrained eye. He says a certified arborist should examine your trees throughout the year and help you develop a planned health care program.   You can get a list of certified arborists at

Wells says a tree can look perfectly healthy and still have weakened limbs, cracked limbs, beam cracks, compromised root systems; any of a dozen different things that a trained eye would see.

Wells says Irene took down numerous full canopy trees. In many cases, healthy looking ashes and oaks went over while dead trees were not harmed. He says the ground was so saturated and the temperatures were warm.  In those conditions, even a wind of 40 miles an hour can cause root plate failure, causing the entire tree to uproot and flip over.

He says remedial action can help damaged trees.  There is end weight reduction for limbs that have beam cracks.  He says limbs can be removed, cabled or braced.  For older trees, crown reduction that takes some end and top weight out can help.

Wells says small changes over long periods of time are the most effective preventative techniques for taking care of a tree.  He says it’s when we make big changes all at once, that a tree has a difficult time.

Navigating the Turnpike? There’s an “App” for That

PA Turnpike TRIP Talk "app"

The PA Turnpike's new TRIP Talk smartphone app actually talks to you.

Keeping with the Turnpike’s plea to ‘keep your thumbs on the wheel,’ the new TRIP Talk app is both hands-free and eyes-free.  “As you move through the Turnpike or toward the Turnpike, using GPS location, it will read you – verbally – read you and alert of traffic situations that you’re coming upon,” says Turnpike COO Craig Shuey. 

The Turnpike partnered with Philadelphia-based Voicenet to develop the cutting-edge application, which provides Turnpike travelers with real-time information.  “Basically, as soon as we know it… it’ll pop up… and you’ll hear it,” Shuey says. 

 The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is announcing the new smartphone app just in time for the busy Labor Day travel weekend.  Spokesman Bill Capone estimates that more than 2-million motorists will use the Turnpike over the Labor Day travel period. 

Users are advised to launch the application before hitting the road.  State Police Troop T Commanding Officer Kathy Jo Winterbottom says it will enhance the safety of all Turnpike travelers.  “I applaud the Turnpike Commission’s efforts to develop this new way of telling drivers what lies ahead on the highway.”  

The free smartphone app is available for android or iPhone devices.  No registrations or subscriptions are necessary. 

Everything was running smoothly on the Turnpike when this reporter tried to fire up TRIP Talk on Friday morning, but the Turnpike Commission loaded a Labor Day message so we could give it a test drive.

September is National Preparedness Month

We’ve just gone through Irene and Katia is churning in the Atlantic.  September is National Preparedness Month and the Federal Emergency Management Agency is reminding Americans to prepare their families, businesses and homes for emergencies of any kind.

Deputy Administrator Tim Manning says you need to know what your risks are, and have an emergency kit and a family plan ready for them. For example, most of the danger in a hurricane comes from flooding, not from the winds.  Once a storm passes, the danger is not over. He says you must understand what you need to do to protect yourself and family.  You have to be able to weather those few days while emergency workers are focused on rescue missions.

Manning says it’s also important to have multiple ways for family members to communicate. You can learn more about doing risk assessment and developing a plan at  Manning says his family also has at least three different locations they’ll evacuate to, or meet at, depending on road conditions.

Manning says community members can help each other, if they’re prepared. After Hurricane Irene, his community came together and cleared downed trees, getting roads reopened just a few hours after the storm blew through. Manning says that’s an important point about disaster resilience; having individuals with plans  to weather the disaster enables the community to come together and help each other.

Capitol Rotunda - Facing House Chamber

Advocates Push PA Lyme Disease Law

Patients and doctors lined up to testify on the proposed Lyme and Related Tick-borne Disease Education, Prevention and Treatment Act.  The House Human Services Committee convened a capitol hearing on HB 272 this week.  “The latest statistics we have from 2009 show that there were almost 5,000 reported cases of Lyme disease in the state of Pennsylvania.  That is by far the highest number of any of the states,” says Chairman Gene DiGirolamo (R-Bucks).  Others later testified that those reported cases are likely just the tip of the iceberg. 

Lyme Disease rash

Lyme Disease will often leave a "bull's eye" rash.

The legislation would create a statewide Lyme disease education task force, and require that health insurers cover Lyme disease treatments.  “There are so many people suffering from this particular disease that is misdiagnosed so many times by a physician, either because they don’t have sufficient training or don’t understand how debilitating this disease can be,” State Rep. Dick Hess (R-Bedford) said in an interview with Radio PA. 

Julia Wagner, who chairs Lyme Action PA, testified that Lyme disease can have severe neurological effects.  “The impact of this disease is such that I was so cognitively affected that I could not string a sentence together.  I could no longer recognize the meaning of a red light, when I stopped at a traffic light,” Wagner says.  Lyme Action PA is a coalition of 19-Lyme disease support groups across the state. 

Hess’s bill has 30-bipartisan co-sponsors, and currently awaits action in the Human Services Committee.  The Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania supports the educational aspects of the legislation, but testified that its insurance mandate is a step in the wrong direction.  “HB 272 is not just an insurance mandate, it also amounts to legislative endorsement of a controversial course of medical treatment,” says Jonathan Greer, vice president of the Insurance Federation of PA.  Despite patients’ testimony, Greer says the science behind long-term antibiotic treatment of Lyme is mixed.

Pennsylvania Give Low Marks to State, National Leaders

The latest Franklin and Marshall College Poll shows  President Obama, Governor Corbett and Pennsylvania’s two United States Senators, Bob Casey and Pat Toomey,  are all in the 30% approval range for job performance among Pennsylvania adults.

The President’s rating stands at 34%, the Governor’s at 32%, Senator Casey is also at 32% and Senator Toomey is at 29%.  Poll director Dr. Terry Madonna blames the relatively low marks on the disdain voters have for the polarization and politics taking place at the state and national level, when it comes to debts, deficits, budgets and programs.

Results in the approval ratings were divided along party lines.  88% of Republicans give President Obama a fair or poor approval rating, compared to 50% of Democrats, who give Governor Corbett a 73% fair or poor rating compared to 46% of Republicans.

 Dr. Madonna says the recession has become personal.  There was a big drop in the number of people generically citing the economy as the top concern.  There was a huge uptick in the number citing unemployment and personal finances.

Only 41% of those polled believes the President deserves re-election. Fifty-two percent of Pennsylvania voters believe it’s time for a change.  But among those voters, President Obama leads Republicans Mitt Romney by 6 points, Michelle Bachman by 19, Rick Perry by 11 and former Pennsylvania U.S. Senator Rick Santorum by 8 points.

Dr.  Madonna says 80% of independents give President Obama a fair or poor approval rating and independents are a key to winning the state.  He says the President’s polling numbers indicate Pennsylvania will be competitive and Madonna also believes the state will be competitive and reasonably close.

The poll also looked at two hot topics in Pennsylvania; the privatization of liquor sales and taxing of natural gas extraction. There’s strong support for taxing companies that extract natural gas, with 64% strongly or somewhat favoring a levy.  Fifty-six percent support selling state owned liquor stores to private companies.

Dr. Madonna says the poll shows 66% have a favorable view of the drilling industry, but respondents were split on whether the potential economic benefits outweigh the possible environmental damage.  They were very clear on additional drilling on state forestland; 54% strongly oppose it.

Dr. Madonna says 72% of those polled feel that the proceeds of a tax on natural gas extraction should be shared between the state and local communities.

The survey was conducted August 22-29 and the sampling error is +/- 4.3 percentage points.

Auditor General’s Report Critical of Wine Kiosk Program

There has been more criticism of the PLCB‘s wine kiosk program, this time from a special performance audit.   Auditor General Jack Wagner says the program does not meet the goals of greater convenience or increased profitability, or reaching under-served areas.  He says unless there are radical changes in the contract with the vendor, the LCB should terminate the contract.

Wagner says there are still 22 kiosks operating at supermarkets in Pennsylvania since Wegman’s pulled out of the program, but sales at those stores are running far below the LCB’s original projections.

Wagner the kiosks were not even open on Sunday. He adds the General Assembly needs to take the handcuffs off the LCB, permitting all of the state stores to be open seven days a week, 12 hours a day.   

Joe Conti, CEO of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, says the future of the kiosk program depends on the resolution of a financial dispute with the vendor over cost reimbursement.  The vendor was declared in breach of the contract.  There is a 45 day cure period which expires September 19th.

Conti agrees with Wagner that the state stores should be able to change their hours of operation.  He says they need a legislative amendment to the liquor code to expand those hours.  He says one was adopted last session but vetoed by then-Governor Ed Rendell.  Conti says there is legislation moving again to expand the hours.

Conti called Wagner’s report very fair and balanced.  He says they will certainly review the recommendations.

Wagner’s report recommends that if the contract for the kiosks is not terminated, the LCB should explore other options for testing blood alcohol concentrations at the kiosks and be more aggressive in holding the vendor accountable for ensuring the kiosks are fully functional at all times.

It recommends the LCB work with the General Assembly to pass legislation that would allow all stores and kiosks to be open seven days a week, with state stores open from 9 a.m. until at least 9 p.m. and kiosks available from 9 a.m. until midnight if they are housed in stores open during those hours.   It also recommends the kiosk offer liquor sales as well as expand wine offerings.

The report finds the kiosks had more than 900 malfunctions before they were shut down last December for repairs.  Even after they were brought back on line in January, there were more than 100 malfunctions reported from late January into late February.

The report also finds that the LCB has spent 1.12 million dollars more than it took in over two fiscal years on the program. The board has billed the vendor for the costs, but the vendor has not paid, resulting in the breach of contract situation.