Powerball Overhaul Pays Off Immediately

Lottery officials said changes in the multi-state Powerball game would lead to larger jackpots sooner. It has already happened, not quite a month into the change.  The jackpot for the drawing on February 11th was up to 325 million dollars by Friday afternoon.

Brisk sales were pushing the jackpot up to its highest mark since the summer of 2007.  By noon Friday, tickets were selling at a pace of more than $6,800 per minute in Pennsylvania alone.  The highest Powerball jackpot ever is $365 million, but Saturday night’s jackpot will offer the highest lump sum cash prize.

Pennsylvania Lottery Director Todd Rucci says this is what they had hoped would happen with the changes in the game. He says the focus was to get larger jackpots sooner. 

Rucci says about 30 cents of each dollar spent on the lottery in Pennsylvania goes to programs for older Pennsylvanians.  This Powerball run has already generated more than 13 million dollars to the lottery fund.

Rucci says they’re trying to separate Powerball from Mega Millions. He says with the changes, it hopefully creates a little more excitement about Powerball.  He says they’re seeing that so far, and excited about where it’s going and where it’s headed.

Rucci says they’re hopeful that this is a good change for the Lottery, but they’ll have to wait and see the long term effects.

Rucci reminds people, with heightened interest in the big jackpot, to have fun but play responsibly.

The jackpot run started in late December. The changes, which included raising ticket prices to $2.00, began January 15th.

RadioPA Roundtable

Radio PA Roundtable 02.10.12

Radio PA Roundtable is a 30-minute program featuring in-depth reporting on the top news stories of the week. Professionally produced and delivered every Friday, Roundtable includes commercial breaks for local sale and quarterly reports for affiliate files.

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State Capitol Facing North Office Building

Appropriations Hearings to Start on Monday

Four weeks of budget hearings commence on Monday when the state Senate Appropriations Committee sits down with the Governor’s Budget Office, Independent Fiscal Office and State Treasury for three separate hearings in their North Office Building hearing room. 

The $27.14-billion dollar no-tax increase budget has been generating plenty of buzz around the state capitol complex, and plenty of rhetoric too.  “If you are on the low rung of the economic ladder in Pennsylvania, this governor has his foot on your neck,” exclaimed Senate Democratic Appropriations Chair Vincent Hughes, who’s sure to scrutinize the public welfare spending plan. 

Between mandatory increases in welfare spending and aggressive cost-containment measures, the Department of Public Welfare budget received a net $30-million dollar cut in proposed budget.  “We need to make sure we take care of the neediest of citizens and reform is necessary to do that,” says Commonwealth Foundation President & CEO Matthew Brouillette, a supporter of the Corbett budget. 

The Department of Public Welfare will get its first budget hearing before the Senate on February 28th.  The House DPW Appropriations hearing is scheduled for March 7th

Governor Tom Corbett continues to make appearances throughout the state to plug his budget plan.  “This is a very difficult time, I understand that,” Corbett said during Thursday’s stop at a Lancaster County manufacturing facility.  “But we have to start living within our means so that companies and the people can start saving and growing, and getting new jobs.” 

National Federation of Independent Business state director Kevin Shivers tells us the small business community is buoyed by the stability that the Corbett administration brings to the state budget process.  “It’s an important message that government is no longer going to spend at a prolific rate and then hand the tax bill to small employers and other taxpayers in the state.”

Senior citizen woman

Nursing Homes Worried About Cuts in Governor’s Budget

The gap between the cost of care and reimbursements has been growing for nursing homes  and they’re worried about cuts in the Medicaid reimbursement rate in Governor Corbett’s proposed budget.

While a 4% reduction may sound like a small number to some,    Dr. Stuart Shapiro, President of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association, says it will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for nursing homes.  He says they’re already underpaid by Medicaid.  He says the gap has grown by 27% in the last year.

In the past, Dr. Shapiro says Medicare used to cover some of that gap.  But with the recent Medicare cuts of 20% in Pennsylvania, the nursing homes cannot sustain any more losses under Medicaid.

He says additional cuts in reimbursements may mean tough decisions for nursing homes about taking people on Medicaid. Dr. Shapiro says they face a real dilemma about how many individuals on Medicaid they can take.  About two-thirds of nursing home residents are on Medicaid.

Dr. Shapiro says it’s not only nursing homes that will be affected.  He says it’s putting pressure on the county facilities, which are already quite full.  He says it’s also putting pressure on hospitals, because individuals who should be discharged to a nursing home may have difficulty finding a place to go.

Dr. Shapiro says they hope to work out a solution in talking with lawmakers and the Governor.  He says “no matter how tough times we have, we’ve made a promise to our elderly that we would take care of them, that we would provide quality care, and now is not the time to break that promise.”

Pennsylvania Joins National Mortgage Abuse Settlement

A multi-state agreement with the nation’s five largest mortgage services over foreclosure abuses now includes Pennsylvania.   The settlement involves Ally, Bank of America, Citi, JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo.

The Commonwealth will get about 266 million dollars, including principal reductions for consumers struggling to avoid foreclosure, refinancing relief and payments to people who lost their homes. 

Attorney General Linda Kelly says it’s a 25 billion dollar national settlement over robo-signing and other abuses involving foreclosures and mortgage servicing.  She says the agreement also addresses breakdowns in the industry, provides new protection against abuse and allows prosecutors to pursue other mortgage-related misconduct.  

Kelly says the Attorney General’s Bureau of Consumer Protection has reviewed more than 5,200 mortgage-related complaints since 2008, when the current foreclosure crisis began.

Transportation Funding Crisis Not a Budget Item

The governor’s Transportation Funding Advisory Commission released its final report in August, and House Democratic Appropriations Chair Joe Markosek (D-Westmoreland/Allegheny) says it’s been ignored for too long.  “I’m just flabbergasted that he’s ignored transportation to the extent that he’s ignored it,” Markosek told us after this week’s budget address.  “It’s just almost unbelievable in my opinion.” 

Pennsylvania faces an annual transportation funding gap that tops $3-billion dollars.  While the new spending plan does not address the matter, Governor Tom Corbett did call it a priority in his budget speech on Tuesday:   

“This is not a budget item.  It is too large for that.  Transportation must be confronted as its own distinct and separate topic.  This problem has grown for the past several decades and it will not be solved overnight.  But, whatever solution we enact must be a lasting one.”

“I have spent significant time considering this issue with my transportation team and developed some workable solutions.  However those solutions will only be possible with your input, assistance and support.” 

Jake Corman

Jake Corman discusses state budget issues with the assembled media.

Senate Republican Appropriations Chair Jake Corman (R-Center) recently put the TFAC recommendations in to bill form in hopes of spurring action on the transportation funding crisis.  But he stresses that this type of funding falls outside of the General Fund and can be addressed at any time – not necessarily during budget season.  “We’ll be waiting for the governor to make his proposal… I look forward to that proposal, and once that comes forward I’m sure we’ll negotiate something that works for everybody,” Corman said during a Q&A with the media following Tuesday’s speech.

College Faculty Group Concerned About Higher Education Cuts in Budget

Governor Corbett’s proposed budget unveiled this week would cut funding to the 14 state-owned universities by 20%.  Faculty at the schools are disappointed the schools are targeted once again.

State System of Higher Education schools had their funding cut by 18% this year, something that’s already led to larger classes and program reviews according to Dr. Steve Hicks, President of the Association of Pennsylvania State Colleges and University Faculties. He fears working class and middle class students and their families will feel the pinch.  Tuition already went up 7.5% this year.

Dr. Hicks is hopeful lawmakers can find a way to reduce the 20% cut proposed for next year.  He’s also disappointed that the Higher Education Advisory Panel named by the Governor does not include a state system faculty member.

Dr. Hicks says many of their students are the first generation in their families to attend college. He says they come from working class, lower middle class families who are trying to step into a different kind of life.  He says the more we reduce the state’s commitment to these institutions, the harder it is for them to make that step that we need for the Commonwealth to grow and develop.

The 14 state system schools are Bloomsburg, California, Clarion, Cheney, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock and West Chester Universities.

Final Marcellus Shale Legislation Headed to Gov’s Desk

Even after years of debate, opinions are mixed on the so-called compromise bill that emerged from a conference committee this week.  The Senate voted 31 – 19 on Tuesday, and the House followed suit with a 101 – 90 vote on Wednesday. 

The legislation will allow counties to authorize a per-well impact fee (between $40,000 – $60,000 in year one) that will generate needed revenue, according to County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania government relations manager Lisa Schaefer.  “We’ve been talking for quite some time about the broad nature of the impacts that are facing our local communities from Marcellus Shale Drilling,” Schaefer tells us.  “Without a direct revenue stream coming back to help offset that, the impact’s been falling back on our local taxpayers.” 

The most obvious local impact from Marcellus Shale is the wear and tear on roads and bridges, but the behind-the-scenes effects include greater demand for county services.  60% of an imposed impact fee would stay local; the other 40% would be used for a variety of statewide environmental programs, like hazardous site cleanup or flood control. 

Should a county decide not to impose a fee, its municipalities would still have the chance to band together and force their hand under the law. 

The bill would also impose stricter new drilling standards and environmental safeguards, but PennFuture President & CEO Jan Jarrett says there are too many waivers and exceptions.  “What we need in Pennsylvania are world class drilling standards, and these regulations that are contained in HB 1950 are woefully short of that goal,” Jarrett explained in a telephone interview. 

The issue of local zoning was hotly debated on the House floor, as critics balked at standardized rules that would require local governments to allow drilling in all zones – including residential.  But State Rep. Garth Everett argued that you’re not going to see a well pad in the middle of a neighborhood.  “All that we’re requiring in this legislation is that this industry be regulating just like any other industry with respect to zoning.”    He says it’s an industrial use that will be zoned like an industrial use. 

Governor Tom Corbett released a statement Wednesday afternoon that said he looks forward to signing the measure into law.  “This legislation reaffirms our strong commitment to safe and responsible natural has development here in Pennsylvania.”  He says it contains 24 of the legislative recommendations made by his Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission.

Budget Plan Would Consolidate Human Services Funding into Block Grants

The governor’s proposed budget takes a new approach to human services funding by lumping seven separate line items into a single block grant.  “The innovation will give the counties the flexibility they need to identify their most pressing needs, and apply funds as they know best,” Corbett said during Tuesday’s budget speech

Jo Ellen Litz, CCAP, County Commissioners

CCAP President Jo Ellen Litz of Lebanon County

The increased flexibility is welcome news to the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania (CCAP), which has identified human services funding as its top legislative priority.  “Counties not only know what programs and services are needed at the local level, but also how they can be most effectively managed while keeping unnecessary costs to a minimum,” says CCAP President Jo Ellen Litz of Lebanon County.

While combining these seven line items the Corbett administration would cut about 20%, or $168-million dollars.  “So they’re going to have perhaps more flexibility, but somewhat less money,” says House Democratic Appropriations Chair Joe Markosek (D-Westmoreland).  “Over time, generally speaking, block grants go down not up.” 

But counties are used to human services funding cuts.  In fact, the next budget is poised to be the 10th consecutive spending plan that cuts state aid for the human services counties deliver.  “Although there is an overall reduction in the monetary amount that counties will be receiving for human services, we also think that the administrative savings that we realize will offset and mitigate that impact this year,” says Somerset County Commissioner Pamela Tokar-Ickes, who chairs CCAP’s Human Services Committee. 

The seven appropriations that are being proposed for block grant consolidation are: Mental Health Services; Intellectual Disabilities; County Child Welfare Special Grants; Behavioral Health Services, Homeless Assistance Program; Human Services Development Fund, and Act 152 Drug and Alcohol Program.

Gov’s Basic Ed. Budget Plans Already Being Debated

Pennsylvania policymakers still aren’t on the same page when it comes to the current fiscal year’s public schools budget, let alone Governor Tom Corbett’s newly proposed education spending plan.  For instance, Governor Tom Corbett made it a point to stress that basic education funding was not cut in June. 

“When the Obama Administration handed states billions of dollars in stimulus monies, the previous administration reduced the state’s share in the Basic Education funding formula.  In its place, they put the stimulus funds.  Almost a billion dollars worth,” Corbett said during Tuesday’s budget address.  “That money is gone.  It’s not coming back.” 

As for his new spending plan, Corbett says there are no cuts to the basic education funding formula.  “In fact you will find a slight increase, just as we did last year,” Corbett said to a partisan applause from lawmakers gathered in joint session.  

Corbett’s new education budget does have a new look however, as the Basic Education Funding, Pupil Transportation, Nonpublic and Charter Transportation and Social Security line items have all been lumped into a $6.5-billion dollar block grant.  

Bill Adolph

Bill Adolph addresses the media following the governor's annual budget address.

“We’ve heard for years that local school districts needed more flexibility,” says House Republican Appropriations Chair Bill Adolph (R-Delaware).  “I think what the governor has laid out today… will give the school districts this type of flexibility.  Sometimes they may not need all of that money in transportation, and can put it into the classroom.”  

But House Democratic Appropriations Chair Joe Markosek (D-Westmoreland) is wary of the block grant approach, and he’s identified $124-million dollars in cuts to education programs.  “I think most school directors would tell you they will have less money to spend, in spite of what the governor has said,” Markosek tells us.  

He’s referring primarily to the elimination of something called the Accountability Block Grant, which received $100-million dollars in the current fiscal year.  It’s a program that primarily helps to fund full-day kindergarten classes across the commonwealth.  

While Governor Tom Corbett’s new approach to education is being interpreted in different ways, there’s not debating the challenges created by a different education line item.  The state’s contribution to the Public School Employees’ Retirement System is slotted for a $315-million dollar (53%) increase in FY2013.