Sen. Casey Pushes for Gift Card Protections

Gift cards may be popular holiday presents, but – if you’re not careful – you could be stuck with nothing more than a lump of coal.   With that in mind, US Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) is pushing for action on the Gift Card Consumer Protection Act, which would ban all gift card expiration dates and user fees.

“It’s billions of dollars that are sometimes wasted when you have these arbitrary rules about deadlines,” Casey tells Radio PA, calling it a major & a timely issue.  “It’s really an economic issue for consumers, but it’s really a broader economic issue for our larger economy.” 

Consumer Reports surveys show that a quarter of Americans who receive gift cards during the holidays have at least one lying around ten months later.  Casey’s office also cites a financial services firm, which found that consumers left $2.5-billion worth of gift-card value on the table in 2010.

With so much “fiscal cliff” work that must be done before the end of the calendar year, Casey says he will work to attach this language to a larger financial bill that could be on the move.  If the job can’t get done during this holiday season, Casey wants to revisit the issue in 2013. 

The Act, which was introduced by Sen. Dick Blumenthal (D-CT), would also bar bankrupt companies from selling gift cards, and protect consumers from being stuck with worthless cards after a company goes out of business.

Auditor General Blasts Turnpike’s “Free Rides”

Auditor General Jack Wagner wants the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to stop giving employees and vendors toll-free personal travel.  “They can utilize the Turnpike at will, both for work-related purposes and for free personal use,” Wagner told a crowd of reporters gathered in a Finance Building conference room.  “In our first finding, we basically state that the free personal use should be eliminated.” 

Wagner was previewing an upcoming audit report, which shows the Turnpike gave out a total of $7.7-million dollars worth of free rides between January 2007 and August 2011.  While the Turnpike has no mechanism for differentiating between on-the-job and personal travel, Wagner says the issue – at least – begs for more oversight. 

Pointing to next month’s toll hike, Wagner says the Turnpike should be doing everything it can to hold down fares for its customers.  Wagner’s letter to the Turnpike Commission asks for a written response that he can include in the final report, which is due out before he leaves office next month.  A Turnpike spokesman says the letter was received Monday afternoon, and a draft of Wagner’s report is currently under review.

PA Coal Mines to Install Defibrillators

A new regulation, which will take effect next March, will require automated external defibrillators at all underground coal mines in Pennsylvania.  It calls for one near the mine’s entry, and one in each of the mine’s underground working sections.  Defibrillators are used to stabilize heart rhythms in the event of a heart attack. 

Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) spokesman Kevin Sunday tells Radio PA that a citizen in southwestern Pennsylvania first brought the issue to the attention of the Board of Coal Mine Safety.  “Everyone was on board with it: the management, the labor and the state,” Sunday explains, “so we moved forward with all due speed and now we have a new regulation that is going to help save lives.”

This is a first-of-its kind regulation, according to Sunday, who says modern technology has now allowed such equipment to be safely stored in an underground mine. 

Pennsylvania’s historic 2008 Coal Mine Safety Act authorized the board to update its own health and safety regulations without waiting for the General Assembly to act. 

Pennsylvania has 36-underground bituminous coal mines, and Sunday says they’ve gone more than three years without any fatalities. 

(photo credit: American Heart Association)

PUC Received More Complaints About Pennsylvania Utilities Last Year

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission has released its 2011 Utility Consumer Activities Report and Evaluation.   Both requests for payment agreements and overall complaints about utilities increased last year.

The complaints come to the PUC after customers are unable to resolve an issue with a utility, and there was an 8% increase in customer contacts that required commission review.

PUC spokeswoman Denise McCracken says weather may have played a role. Events like Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee caused numerous outages last year, along with the October snowstorm.

McCracken says many complaints dealt with payment arrangements, but there were also increases in other contacts, including complaints about personnel.

The PUC is reviewing the areas of increased complaints.

Housing Market is Recovering

With consumer confidence up and mortgage rates down, the housing market is making a slow but steady recovery.  “Right now, I think, is a good time to buy because house values are still low,” says Kate Newton, Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA) Director of Homeownership Programs.  “Especially in Pennsylvania there really aren’t any more signs – that we should expect anyway – for house values to decrease.” 

The Pennsylvania Builders Association reports that new home permits are up 14% year-over-year, another sign that Pennsylvania’s housing recovery is underway. 

Newton says Pennsylvania was fortunate not to have a huge ‘housing bubble,’ so our housing market did not fall as far or as hard as it did in other states.  Appearing on WITF’s Radio Smart Talk, Newton noted that housing markets will vary locally.  The PHFA has recently released county-by-county data on housing availability and affordability. 

The latest update from Freddie Mac indicates that mortgage rates are near record lows (3.34% for a 30-year fixed-rate loan), and the National Association of Realtors reports that pending home sales are at their highest levels since March 2007.

RadioPA Roundtable

Radio PA Roundtable 12.07.12

On this week’s Radio PA Roundtable, Brad Christman and Matt Paul bring you the Corbett Administration’s mid-year budget analysis as the 2012-13 fiscal year reaches the midway point; Democrats tell you their priorities for the new year; and we bring you information on a new way to make a difference to Pennsylvania’s children’s hospitals.

Radio PA Roundtable is a 30-minute program featuring in-depth reporting on the top news stories of the week.

Click the audio player below to hear the full broadcast:


Give Miracles this Holiday Season

Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals want you to check out a new holiday catalog full of electronics and toys.  I know what you’re thinking… But these electronics include heart monitors to check the vital signs of sick babies, and these toys are used to brighten a child’s day during a long stay at the hospital. 

The Give Miracles campaign uses crowdfunding to add a twist of social media to your holiday gift giving.  “What if people could actually get together and donate in groups of people,” asks CMN Hospitals Chief Concept Officer Craig Sorensen, “maybe you have $20 to give, $100 dollars to give, or $100,000 dollars to give to your local Children’s Miracle Network Hospital, but you could go all in together and crowdfund an item.” 

The platform being used for the Give Miracles campaign is Fundly, and CEO Dave Boyce says the model treats the $100 dollar donor like the $100,000 dollar donor.  “The thing that’s frustrating for most of us mere mortals who donate $50 or $100 at a time is that we never know where our money goes, and we never get any of the psychic benefit that we thought we were going to get from donating,” Boyce explains.

That’s all changing now, because donors will not only choose which hospital they want to support – but they’ll decide where they want their money to go, and whether to fund a specific need completely or become part of a larger project.  Campaign subscribers then receive regular updates on their chosen project, which allow them to track where their money is going and who else in their social networks is joining them.   

In Pennsylvania, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital, Saint Vincent Health Center and Geisinger’s Janet Weis Children’s Hospital are all a part of this unique campaign. 

Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is actually one of eight hospitals, nationwide, which are being featured for an Ultimate Gift.  “We have one of the very best autism research and treatment programs in the world,” says CHOP’s Chief Development Officer Stuart Sullivan.  “We thought if we got a significant investment from a donor we could do even more.”  Their goal: $7.5-million dollars.     

Children’s hospitals help more kids than any other organization in a community, according to Craig Sorensen, who also notes that they aren’t always top of mind as a cause organization.  That’s why Sorensen hopes the Give Miracles campaign becomes an annual tradition.

Dairy Farmers in Pennsylvania Say They Still Need Some Breathing Room

Dairy farmers are still dealing with tight margins and they’re asking the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board to continue the current Class I over-order premium price for milk for another six months, starting January 1st. 

Feed prices are the main issue, due to a combination of local and national issues. This year’s Midwest drought coupled with last year’s weather conditions in Pennsylvania have kept farms operating on tighter margins. 

Mark O’Neill of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau says if the Class I over-order premium for milk stays at $1.95 per hundred   for another six months, consumers shouldn’t notice any difference at the grocery store.  

Dairy farmers are also asking the board to retain the current fuel adjuster premium.

Prepping for another Tough Budget Season

The Corbett administration’s third budget season may be its most difficult yet, according to Budget Secretary Charles Zogby.  The 2012-13 Mid-Year Budget Briefing projects the state will end the current fiscal year $85-million dollars in the black, but $1.3-billion in mandatory cost drivers await in the new fiscal year. 

For instance: pension obligations ($511-million), Medical Assistance ($650-million) and debt service ($89-million). 

Charles Zogby gives reporters a mid-year update on the state budget.

“We’re working very hard in a number of areas – education would be one, health & human services – to not have to make the level of deep cuts that we’ve made in the past,” Zogby told reporters huddled in a capitol conference room. 

Zogby’s not divulging many details ahead of Governor Tom Corbett’s February budget address, but says it will not include any new taxes. 

For now, the budget planning revolves around a hypothetical 3% revenue growth in FY2013-2014, but Zogby knows a lot can change in the next two months.  “Not the least of which is the fiscal cliff,” Zogby says, noting that sequestration alone could have a $300-million dollar impact on the Commonwealth. 

Legislative Democrats have been critical of the governor’s first two spending plans, and they don’t see things changing during the coming budget cycle.  “We have suggested that jobs, education, health care and transportation are things to invest in,” says House Democratic Appropriations Chair Joe Markosek (D-Westmoreland).  “The Governor has suggested that corporate welfare is something that we ought to be investing in.” 

Democrats say it’s showing up in the state’s tax receipts, where corporation taxes are running 18% above projection for the fiscal year, while sales and personal income taxes are lagging.

Governor Corbett Ushers in the Holiday Season

Governor Tom Corbett was joined by First Lady Susan Corbett and Lieutenant Governor Jim Cawley in lighting the state Capitol Christmas tree Tuesday, officially kicking off the holiday season in Harrisburg.

This year’s tree is a 22-foot Douglas Fir grown by Crystal Springs Tree Farm in Carbon County. The tree was donated by the Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Growers Association, which also contributed 28 additional trees to be used in and around the state Capitol complex. After many years inside under the Capitol dome, this year’s main attraction is located outside, on the Capitol steps. Governor Corbett says he wanted to share the tree with the people of Harrisburg and those who come to the city from around the state.

While preparing to light the tree, the governor asked all Pennsylvanians to remember our soldiers serving overseas this holiday season.