PA Senate Democrats Urge Action on Legislation for Working Families, Pledge to Oppose Partisan COVID Task Force

PA Senate Democrats Urge Action on Legislation for Working Families, Pledge to Oppose Partisan COVID Task Force

Harrisburg, PA − April 8, 2020 − The Senate adjourned Tuesday afternoon after the House Republicans indicated they would not be taking up Senate Bill 841, legislation that would have enabled local municipalities to hold their meetings remotely, permitted e-notary use; lengthened the time period a property tax payer can receive an early payment discount and delay penalties for late payments to Dec. 31st; and allowed businesses to make delayed payments on EITC. Another important amendment offered by Senator Pam Iovino (D-Allegheny) allowed school districts to renegotiate contracts to ensure contracted school workers can get paid and continue to receive benefits.

The amended SB 841 passed the Senate with bipartisan support. While the Senate Democrats and Republicans chose to put partisan difference aside, the House Republicans were pushing to please special interests and big donors. Intending to use this crisis as leverage, Speaker Turzai and his caucus passed legislation to prematurely allow businesses to reopen during this public health crisis and create a partisan task force to interfere with the Governor’s disaster response, both of which unnecessarily risk lives and threaten to expend the emergency.

“While the Governor and Department of Health Secretary offer leadership on public safety in daily briefings and Democratic members of the PA House and Senate draft legislation to protect working people who are either out of work or employed on the front lines of essential businesses, Republicans are putting lives at risk and undermining the Governor and Secretary Levine’s best efforts to end this crisis,” said Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa, Jr. “Instead of taking the advice of our Health Secretary, they are trying to slow down our response and hasten the re-opening of non-essential businesses against the guidance of every public health entity in the country.”

The House Republicans were seeking even more egregious measures to provide civil immunity to big businesses, upend school districts ability to pay their teachers, and leave our corrections department employees at serious threat of the Coronavirus. Perhaps worst of all, the language does nothing to protect frontline workers, provide assistance to those that are out of work, or to help small businesses weather this crisis.

In an amendment to Senate Bill 327, House Republicans designed a task force with partisan appointees to usurp the Governor’s ability to rapidly respond to this quickly-evolving crisis. Their bill would require the Secretary of Health to leave PEMA, take hours away from public health crisis planning and defend her work in front of a redundant, political body.

The Senate Democratic Caucus will not support these bills. Alternatively, this caucus will be supporting legislation on the following issues:

  • The American Working Family Relief Action Plan for front-line worker protections (Collett/L. Williams)
  • Protecting workers during public health emergencies (Santarsiero)
  • COVID-19 Food Worker Safety Act (Tartaglione)
  • COVID-19 Grocery Store Worker Safety Act (Tartaglione)
  • Payment of contract services in schools (Iovino)
  • Childcare assistance (Schwank/L. Williams)
  • Emergency expansion of the Family Medical Leave Act to provide paid sick leave (Farnese)
  • Crisis grants for volunteer fire and EMS companies due to COVID-19 (Brewster)
  • Require business interruption insurance to cover COVID-19 related business closures (Hughes)
  • Eviction protection for all disaster emergencies (Farnese)
  • Coronavirus disease and schools: allowing for online instruction (Dinniman)
  • Creating a Common Wealth Fund to collect donations from individuals to provide for essential needs of those in need (AH Williams)
  • Providing a presumption of eligibility for Workers’ Compensation benefits for workers that get sick in the workplace (Tartaglione)
  • Ensuring receipt of a stimulus check from the Federal government is not included in an individual’s income for purposes of qualifying for social safety nets (Schwank)
  • Exempting stimulus checks from the Federal government from State and local taxation (Brewster)
  • Collaborating with financial institutions to mandate mortgage loan forgiveness, assistance to homeowners that were laid off due to state emergencies (Farnese)

“While many working Pennsylvanians are suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic, facing lost hours or even complete unemployment, others who find themselves in more fortunate circumstances have expressed a desire to help their fellow citizens by either donating to a local charity or patronizing local businesses,” said Senator Anthony H. Williams. “By establishing the “Pennsylvania Common Wealth” restricted account, taxpayers could redirect all or a portion of their stimulus check to the state, which in turn would be authorized to direct those funds into programs which help the neediest Pennsylvanians – property tax & rent rebates, temporary assistance for needy families, CHIP or medical assistance.”

“Pennsylvania needs solutions that help protect its working people who have been hit the hardest by the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic,” Senator Vincent Hughes said. “We in the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Caucus have put forth a number of policy proposals that would do just that, meanwhile House Republicans have chosen to ignore these needs and push an agenda that jeopardizes public health and puts additional pressure on working people by delaying immediate relief. Our mission should be helping people in this unprecedented time of need and we will remain vigilant in protecting hardworking folks across the commonwealth.” 

“As public servants, our most important duty is to protect the health, safety and welfare of our citizens. This includes making difficult decisions in challenging times. We all want businesses to reopen, employees back on the job, students back in classrooms and some semblance of normal life to resume, but that cannot happen unless we first continue mitigation efforts and follow the advice of our scientists and experts,” said Senator Wayne D. Fontana. “Anything contrary can set back progress and cause further harm on our economy and most importantly, on human health. The bipartisan legislation the Senate approved provides some necessary guidance and relief to local governments, businesses, school employees and property taxpayers during this unprecedented situation. It is unconscionable that House Republicans blatantly disregarded that duty and have chosen not to act.”

“The spread of coronavirus has not quieted the voice of special interests in Harrisburg and that’s tragic,” said Senator Larry Farnese. “Mitigation through isolation is working and we have to recognize that sacrifice through legislation that actually helps front-line workers instead of just saying nice things on social media.”

“This crisis and the Commonwealth’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic requires leadership, transparency and cooperation – not partisan politics,” said Senator John Blake. “While we’ve worked well with the Senate majority on real solutions that actually help people in this crisis, the House majority looks to undermine the executive authority of the Governor as well as the advice of medical and scientific experts regarding public health.  I applaud the work being done by Governor Wolf and his administration to keep Pennsylvanians safe and to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. I will continue to support important legislation to help our business community, front-line workers and medical professionals; and to protect our citizens, schools and local governments across this state. We need to remain vigilant in following the recommendations of the PA Department of Health and the federal CDC.”

“Issues that the Commonwealth was already facing have been exacerbated by this pandemic, and child care services and early learning programs are near the top of the list. Childcare centers are teetering on the brink of insolvency, which is why part of our legislative package addresses early childhood learning and safe, quality childcare. We will not be able to restart Pennsylvania’s economy without this key component,” Senator Judy Schwank said. “Additionally, it’s vital that the income requirements of state programs like PACENET and Property Tax and Rent Rebate are adjusted so that Pennsylvanians receiving federal aid are not penalized later.”

“The key to an effective response to the pandemic is to ensure that our citizens are protected, health risks are addressed, and our economy restarts quickly,” Senator Jim Brewster said. “That’s why I introduced a six-point stimulus plan that will help small business, protect workers and create jobs once we are clear from the threat posed by the pandemic. In addition, we need to make sure to address the immediate and long-term needs of first responders and all workers and businesses who are providing essential services during this time of extraordinary stress.”

“There is no segment of our Commonwealth that hasn’t been upended by this crisis. Everything is a priority. But in order to save livelihoods, we must first save lives,” said Senator Maria Collett. “As a nurse, I know firsthand the challenges our health care workers are up against and the urgency of passing legislation like the American Working Family Relief Action Plan for Front-Line Workers. Our doctors, nurses, first responders, senior care aides and others should not have to worry about getting sick or infecting others while performing their essential work.”

“It is irresponsible for the state to reopen businesses at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak. Those who are not essential workers should remain home,” said Senator Art Haywood. We need to do all we can as legislators to support essential employees risking their lives on a daily basis,” said Senator Haywood (D-Montgomery/Philadelphia). “I will continue to support the work Governor Wolf and Secretary Levine have done to inform the public to remain safe and stay home.”

“The citizens of Pennsylvania are counting on their elected representatives to save lives by responding swiftly, pragmatically, and in a bipartisan manner to slow the spread of this highly contagious virus,” said Senator Pam Iovino. “To fulfill our duty to the public, we must follow the consensus guidance of public health professionals, focus on protecting front-line essential workers, and put in place protections that allow furloughed or unemployed workers and small businesses to weather the economic disruption.”

“As the Democratic chair of the Local Government Committee, I worked with stakeholders for weeks to craft the provisions of SB 841, I am disappointed these commonsense measures, which passed the Senate with bipartisan support, are being held up by House Republicans for little reason,” said Senator Tim Kearney. “The House should immediately pass SB 841 and focus on bringing relief to Pennsylvanians, rather than sabotaging the Governor’s efforts to keep our families safe.”

“Yesterday, the majority party in both chambers failed to use their legislative power, where they can literally pass any bill they want to, and instead decided to pack up and go home without,” said Senator Katie Muth. “Failing to pass meaningful bills when people are fighting for their lives is simply negligent.”

“Now is not the time to play politics,” said Senator Steve Santarsiero. “Saving lives has to be the first priority.  In order to do that, we must all do our part and follow the Governor’s and Department of Health’s plans as they’ve been explained to us countless times. SB 841 is just one of many ways our caucus has worked in a bipartisan effort to provide relief to those who need it most. However, SB 327 is exactly what our healthcare professionals warn us against. Promoting a premature return to normalcy will only undermine our effort to keep the public safe, and further endanger thousands of lives.”

“Government’s most important role is the protection of its people. Since the COVID-19 crisis the Senate has met three times, with little to show for it. Communities across the commonwealth have no interest in the paralysis of government especially in the most desperate of times.  What they do care about is the protection of our essential workforce, the interruption of our small businesses,  job loss, staying in their homes and educating their children. The only thing that matters is the preservation and protection  of every resource needed to keep families safe during this health crisis,” said Senator Sharif Street.   

 “We need to be back in Harrisburg, we need to get back to work.  We must work together to ensure our communities are protected during uncertain times.”

 “As thousands of Pennsylvanians continue to get sick and hundreds die, now is no time to play partisan politics,” Senator Tina Tartaglione said. “As public leaders, we must unite behind the common goal of reducing the threat of this virus and mitigating the harm being done to our constituents. The package of bills we have proposed will directly help all Pennsylvania families, including essential workers, displaced workers, first responders, school children, those who have become sick, and those in need. I urge all legislators from all political parties to support these bills.”

“Stopping the spread of COVID-19 and saving lives is our top priority. We also need to protect and support our constituents, our communities, and our businesses,” said Senator Lindsey Williams. “Our front-line essential workers – our hospital workers, grocery store workers, emergency service personnel and others – cannot afford to wait for PPE. They needed it weeks ago. Our childcare facilities need our help to stay open and provide care to the children of our essential workers while they risk their lives for us. Our small businesses need financial support to stay afloat. Our municipalities need the ability to meet remotely and make decisions that will ensure the safety of all of residents. There are a lot of needs right now and our constituents do not have time for us to waste playing partisan games or naming bridges. The Senate Democrats have offered concrete solutions that will help people. We should all be working together to get them to the Governor’s desk for signature as soon as possible.”

More information on the work of the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Caucus during the COVID-19 crisis can be found at pasenate.com/covid19.

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Democratic Senators to Gov. Wolf and General Assembly: Make Rebuilding Manufacturing a Priority

Democratic Senators to Gov. Wolf and General Assembly: Make Rebuilding Manufacturing a Priority

Senator Jim Brewster

Senator Jim Brewster

Senator Vincent Hughes

Senator Vincent Hughes

Senator John Yudichak

Senator John Yudichak

Op-ed by state Sen. John T. Yudichak (D-Luzerne), Sen. Vincent J. Hughes (D-Philadelphia), Sen. Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny/Westmoreland)

October 23, 2017 − National Manufacturing Day is the first Friday in October.  While noting the importance of manufacturing on this one day is important, the focus on rebuilding our manufacturing base should be a priority for the governor and the General Assembly each day. 

That is why we’ve joined together to sponsor a comprehensive package of legislation that is designed to address the needs of manufacturers, our workers and the communities where they live, work and raise their families. 

Our legislation seeks to better coordinate policy through the creation of a “Chief Manufacturing Officer;” infuse new dollars into targeted vocational and technical training; expand the Manufacturing Tax Credit and earmark credits to help build manufacturing in distressed communities while aiding disadvantaged, minority, women and veteran-owned businesses.

There is no doubt that manufacturing is a critically important part of our economy. Large employers who drive local economies and small mom-and-pop entrepreneurs are all key aspects.  According to the Center for Manufacturing Research, manufacturing accounts for 12 percent of our gross state product, employs nearly 10 percent of our workers — over 565,000 — and accounts for $33 billion in annual exports. 

The value of manufacturing is even more pronounced in rural areas.  A recent study by the Northeast Pennsylvania Industrial Resource Center indicates that manufacturing represents almost 15 percent of non-urban jobs, with average compensation more than 20 percent above the regional worker wage level. 

To ensure that manufacturing remains a viable and valuable force in our state economy, policymakers need to stay up with trends and accommodate changes in the market.   If we fail to work collaboratively, we will face losing more jobs and business opportunities.   According to the state Bureau of Labor Statistics, since 2001 Pennsylvania has lost 264,000 jobs in manufacturing and 5,400 establishments. 

There are a great many challenges that manufacturers face.  A recent study of national manufacturing by Ball State University indicated that manufacturing employment has been affected by three distinct factors: productivity, trade and domestic demand. 

Our workers and our manufacturing establishments have become more innovative, use more technology based systems and require fewer workers per location.  Yet, even with these well-entrenched changes now altering the manufacturing landscape, there is still room for lawmakers to aid large and small manufacturing businesses. 

Senate Bill 923 would create a “Chief Manufacturing Officer” within the governor’s office to provide advice on economic policy and be a singular voice for manufacturers at the highest level.  The measure also establishes a “Manufacturing Competitiveness Board” to help develop manufacturing strategy. 

Another bill (Senate Bill 924) would direct up to $5 million to a grant program for vocational technical schools, vocational programs and equipment purchases.   The legislation would increase the maximum loan amount from $5 million to $7.5 million and authorize loans to retrofit equipment.  This investment would help schools acquire the equipment necessary to produce a skilled workforce that can be employed in state-of-the-art manufacturing operations. 

The third legislative piece in the package would maximize the Manufacturing Tax Credit.  Senate Bill 925 would increase the credit cap to $12.5 million from its current $4 million, expand the credit to include job training costs, and allow small manufacturers to apply jointly for the credit.  A $2.5 million piece of the tax credit would be reserved for businesses located in distressed communities in addition to disadvantaged, minority, women and veterans owned businesses. 

Our legislative work is designed to follow up on a detailed report authored earlier this decade by the Governor’s Manufacturing Advisory Council.  In this sweeping analysis of manufacturing, the blue-ribbon panel recommended several actions that could aid manufacturing.

Specifically, the study reported that 82 percent of manufacturers had a serious gap in worker skill level and 74 percent indicated that the skill-gap hampered the ability to expand.  Meanwhile, 78 percent of manufacturers were negatively impacted by a lack of access to capital. 

Moreover, the report emphasizes the need for a single point of contact in state government to connect manufacturers to solutions.  The report also recommends focusing attention on information sharing to enhance productivity. 

Policy proposals to address each of these needs are key parts of our legislative plan. 

The series of legislative measures that we’ve offered will address the critical needs of manufacturers.  In this month when Manufacturing Day is recognized, it is time for the General Assembly and the governor to focus on policies to rebuild our communities and make our workforce a priority.

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Hughes, Yudichak, Brewster Sponsor Three-Pronged Manufacturing Initiative

Package Designed to Spur Job Creation

Harrisburg – October 11, 2017 – A new legislative initiative designed to spur manufacturing and job creation should be a priority for Senate consideration, according to Sens. Vincent J. Hughes (D-Philadelphia), John T. Yudichak (D-Luzerne) and James R. Brewster (D-Allegheny), the prime sponsors of the plan. 

“The new legislative proposals are designed to refocus efforts toward both building up and bolstering the existing manufacturing base and creating new jobs,” said Hughes, who serves as Democratic chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. 

Yudichak’s bill (Senate Bill 923) will create a “Chief Manufacturing Officer” within the governor’s office to provide advice on economic policy.  The measure also establishes a “Manufacturing Competitiveness Board” to help develop manufacturing strategy. 

“Our manufacturing sector has been, and will continue to be, the steel in Pennsylvania’s economic spine,” Yudichak said, “but, we can do even better if we coordinate policy and bring new ideas forward. 

“Communities across Pennsylvania, big and small, have been impacted by economic shifts which affect our manufacturing sector.”

According to the Center for Manufacturing Research, manufacturing accounts for more than 12 percent of the state’s gross state product.  More than 516,000 Pennsylvanians are employed in manufacturing. 

The senators said that more manufacturing companies need access to additional state financial resources to gain a competitive advantage and keep up with changing technology and job training needs.  To assist manufacturers, Brewster will introduce a bill to fully develop access to the Machinery and Equipment Loan Fund. 

Brewster’s proposal (Senate Bill 924) would direct up to $5 million to a grant program for vocational technical schools, vocational programs and equipment purchases.  

“An important aspect of improving our manufacturing sector, building our job base and retooling manufacturing to serve economic needs for years to come is through enhanced vocational training,” Brewster said.  “This is an important initiative that will open more doors to more workers.”

A second element of his legislation would increase the maximum loan amount from $5 million to $7.5 million and authorize loans to retrofit equipment. 

Another important feature of the package is a measure authored by Hughes to maximize the Manufacturing Tax Credit.  The Philadelphia lawmaker’s bill (Senate Bill 925) would increase the credit cap to $12.5 million from its current $4 million, expand the credit to include job training costs, and allow small manufactures to apply jointly for the credit.  A $2.5 million piece of the tax credit would be reserved for businesses located in distressed communities in addition to disadvantaged, minority, women and veterans owned businesses. 

“Businesses who are engaged in manufacturing should be able to use tax provisions to generate new business opportunities and jobs,” Hughes said.  “The initiative is unique in that it permits small operations to come together in applying for the credit and includes job training costs.

“Our small manufacturers play an incredibly important role in our economy.  Too often our policy focus is on attracting large businesses when we could also be finding new ways to help small operations grow and prosper.”

The Center for Manufacturing Research reports that Pennsylvania manufacturers employ nearly 10 percent (9.6 percent) of the state’s workforce.  Pennsylvania exported more than $33 billion in manufactured goods in 2016.

Hughes noted that “given the need to build a diverse and strong job base, lawmakers should explore every avenue that is available to secure new manufacturing jobs.   The initiative is aimed squarely at helping business create jobs.”

“It is clear, our economic recovery is gaining steam, but it remains uneven,” Yudichak said.  “There are many sectors that are growing but others need new tools to get traction in today’s international marketplace.”

Brewster noted worker’s wages grow when job skills are enhanced and that is the result of additional job training. 

Building the manufacturing sector generates family-sustaining jobs, reinforces a strong middle class, improves wages and helps strengthen neighborhoods and communities, Hughes notes. 

“This fall, I am hopeful that legislative energy can be aimed at aiding the manufacturing sector so that jobs can be generated,” he said.

Hughes said that he expected the legislative package would be introduced within the next two weeks.

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Senate Democrats Call for Special Session on Property Tax Relief or Elimination

 

Harrisburg – February 1, 2017 – State Senate Democrats said that Gov. Tom Wolf should call a special session of the General Assembly to ensure that legislation that results in significant property tax relief or total elimination is passed and signed into law this session.

At a news conference today at the state Capitol, Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) said taxpayers of Pennsylvania have waited too long for relief from escalating tax bills.

“We believe there should be a full, complete and transparent discussion of any and all tax relief or elimination proposals,” Costa said.  “A special session provides the kind of platform that is needed for citizens and lawmakers to understand specifics about each proposal.”

Leading the call for the special session, state Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton) said, “Relief from property tax needs to be addressed without delay.”

In the letter to the governor, the Democrats stated, “Our taxpayers have waited far too long for action on this important issue.  They want lawmakers to set aside partisan agendas and enact a significant property tax reform or elimination measure–NOW.”

Working families are struggling to pay mortgages and save for college for their children while seniors have to scrape resources together to make ends meet; property taxes add to their burden, the letter said.

Boscola, who has been a long-time advocate of property tax elimination and relief, said that “my goal is to pass legislation that will eliminate the property tax and replace it with a better system to fund public education. Our homeowners deserve it and our children need it.”

Another strong proponent of calling the special session is Senate Democratic Whip Sen. Anthony H. Williams (D-Philadelphia/Delaware).

“Addressing property tax relief or elimination needs to be a top priority, but is critical that we look at all the plans closely and find common ground,” Williams said.  “A special session will force the General Assembly to focus on the issue, act assertively and come forward with a proposal that is balanced and equitable.

“Our property taxpayers have waited long enough.”

Senate Democratic Appropriations Chair Sen. Vincent J. Hughes (D-Philadelphia/Montgomery) endorsed the call for a special session.

“The issue of property taxes has been a top priority for Pennsylvanians, many of whom have seen significant tax increases over the past few years,” Hughes said.  “This special session would serve as an opportunity to thoroughly examine how we can provide the sustainable property tax relief that Pennsylvanians want and deserve while ensuring that our school districts are still properly funded.”

Sen. John Blake (D-Lackawanna) said that a special session will allow lawmakers to fashion a plan that strikes a balance between property tax relief and reliable state support for public education.

“For many Pennsylvanians – particularly our seniors and lower income property owners – there is a very real school property tax crisis. I remain committed to a responsible solution that can significantly reduce and, if possible, eliminate the property tax burden on these lower income property owners,” Blake said. “I believe strongly that a special session on property tax reform can finally allow the legislature to strike the appropriate balance between property tax relief and the assurance of sufficient, predictable and reliable state financial support for public education.”

Sen. Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny/Westmoreland) said he hoped a special session will spur lawmakers to act.

“For too long our taxpayers have watched while the General Assembly has tried to deal with reducing property taxes,” Brewster said. “There are many plans now being drafted or considered and lawmakers need to come together on a plan that provided real relief or elimination.  Taxpayers have waited too long.

“A special session is an excellent forum for all plans to be discussed, including the plan to totally eliminate property taxes.”

Sen. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) said that there are several approaches to address tax reform, but lawmakers need to be thoughtful about how tax elimination impacts schools.

“If we’re going to get serious about providing property tax relief or elimination, we must do it thoughtfully. We certainly can’t hastily approve an elimination plan at the expense of our public schools,” Street said. “There are several approaches to addressing property taxes, so a special session would provide us with a clearer path toward true relief.”

Sen. Judy Schwank (D-Berks), who has long been an advocate of property tax elimination, said school property tax is a complicated issue.

“One large source of revenue for school funding must be replaced with multiple other sources, and we must do this fairly and uniformly,” Schwank said.  “Let’s use this special session to strike a balance between relieving the heavy burden property owners face, while also providing our schools with a reliable source of investment.”

Sen. Art Haywood (D-Philadelphia/Montgomery) said that property tax reform is a complex issue, but one that must be addressed.

“Property taxes remain an important issue to address. I still maintain that the appropriate solution will prove complex. We must dedicate time and effort to ensure the solution is successful,” Haywood said.

“The property tax is no longer sustainable as the sole source of funding for public education. It is high time for us to come together in the spirit of bipartisanship to develop and enact new and lasting solutions to the ongoing burden of rising property taxes on Pennsylvania homeowners,” Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-Chester) who serves as minority chair of the Senate Education Committee said. “This is a process that must involve both school districts and direct input from taxpayers and homeowners.”

The governor is empowered to call a special session of the General Assembly under the provisions of Article II, Section 4 and Article IV, Section 12 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

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Senate Hearing Focuses on Budget Impasse’s Impact on Schools

Harrisburg – October 28, 2015 – At the request of state Sen. Vince Hughes (D-Phila.), the Senate Democratic Policy Committee today held a hearing on the devastating impact that the state’s 120-day budget impasse is having on schools across the state.

“While many of the budget dispute points remain unresolved, what is clear is that the consequences of this impasse are far-reaching,” said Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton), who chairs the committee. “This hearing gives lawmakers a sense of how schools are handling the funding shortfall, and what problems they’ll face if this stalemate continues to drag on.”

Hughes added, “A growing number of schools have been cornered into borrowing money and taking out credit lines just to keep their doors open. Hopefully, this hearing’s focus on this worsening statewide financial crisis will encourage greater urgency, cooperation and compromise in the ongoing budget negotiations.”

During the hearing, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale testified that at least 27 school districts have taken out loans totaling more than $431 million. He projected that interest payments will total $30 million if the stalemate reaches mid-November.

Those who testified decried how the impasse has harmed students, depleted reserves and how taxpayers will be needlessly saddled with paying the interest on the growing number of loans and credit lines that schools are obtaining to keep their doors open.

Erie Public Schools Superintendent Jay Badams lamented that his district will need to borrow $30 million just to get through January.

“That’s $114,000 in wasted interest money that could have been used for so many badly needed educational expenses,” Badams said.

Dr. Joseph Roy, who serves as superintendent of the Bethlehem Area School District in Northampton County, added that “choices at the state level continue to hammer school districts.” He said the diversion of funds to charter and cyber schools and a “punitive” approach to public education has blown up school expenditures.

Dr. Rula Skezas, who serves as superintendent of the McKeesport Area School District in Allegheny County, noted that even if the district receives its proposed funding it would still fall short of what it received during the 2011 school year. She said McKeesport has taken out a $5 million line of credit to make it to December. She said the district has already eliminated 110 staff positions to try and make ends meet.

Hughes, who serves as Democratic chair of the Appropriations Committee, said public, charter and private schools are already reeling from years of being underfunded. He noted that the Philadelphia School District has already borrowed $275 million during the impasse. Fran Burns, who serves as chief operating officer for the School District of Philadelphia, testified that the district has struggled to contend with a “structural deficit.”

Lamenting the impact on local working families who fund schools through property taxes, Boscola pointed toward an educational survey conducted earlier this year showing that nearly 75 percent of districts were planning to impose property tax hikes, 30 percent were planning on making additional program cuts, and 41 percent were making more staff cuts. She said the state has withheld approximately $3 billion in school funds since the budget impasse began in July.

Joining Boscola and Hughes at the Capitol committee hearing were Senators John Blake (D-Lackawanna), Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny), Andrew Dinniman (D-Montgomery), Christine Tartaglione (D-Phila.) and Sean Wiley (D-Erie),

Those testifying included:

  • The Honorable Eugene DePasquale
    Pennsylvania Auditor General
  • Fran Burns
    Chief Operating Officer, School District of Philadelphia
  • Joseph Gorham
    Superintendent of Schools, Carbondale Area School District
  • Dr. Joseph Roy
    Superintendent of Schools, Bethlehem Area School District
  • Dr. Jay D. Badams
    Superintendent, Erie Public Schools
  • Dr. Rula S. Skezas
    Superintendent, McKeesport Area School District
  • Marjorie Neff
    Chair, School Reform Commission
  • Anthony Pirrello
    CEO, Montessori Regional Charter School of Erie, and Vice President of Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools
  • Matt Przywara
    Member, PASBO
    Chief Financial and Operations Officer, School District of Lancaster
  • Bill LaCoff
    President, Pennsylvania School Boards Association
  • Susan Gobreski
    Education Voters of Pennsylvania
  • Dr. Pearl English
    School Nurse, School District of Philadelphia

# # #

Senate Democrats Ask Treasurer to Withhold Payment to Charters

Harrisburg – Oct, 20, 2015 – State Senate Democrats today called on the Pennsylvania state treasurer to “stop payment” on a scheduled disbursement of property tax revenue headed to charter schools. They have sent a letter to state Treasurer Tim Reese formally asking for the withholding of the money.

“Charter schools are seeking gaming tax relief funds based on one legal interpretation, while public schools and many public officials have a different view of the law,” state Sen. Democratic Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) said today. “The treasurer should not release one dime until there is legal clarity and outstanding issues have been resolved.”

Charter schools contend that they are due disbursement from funds generated from gaming revenues. Typically, when a state budget is adopted, charter school funding is deducted from basic education subsidies.

Due to the budget impasse the normal funding stream is not available. The charters say that the law stipulates that since those funds are not available, the funds are then deducted from other state payments. The state is expected to make a $45 million payout to charter schools on Oct. 22, with 312 school districts diverting funds to charter schools.

“All of our schools, including traditional public schools and charters, need to be appropriately funded by the commonwealth,” Senate Democratic Appropriations Chair Vincent J. Hughes (D-Philadelphia/Montgomery) said. “However, we cannot provide special assistance to charter schools while many other school districts are suffering.

“I urge the state treasurer to hold off making payments to charter schools until the budget impasse has been resolved and all schools have funding in place.”

Sen. Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny/Westmoreland) called for the suspension of the payment to charter schools late last week. Brewster said “public schools are facing incredible difficulties because of the lack of a state budget.

“Now, the funding they are getting outside of the basic subsidy is being hijacked and that is wrong.”

Brewster pointed to the situation involving two of his school districts in the Monongahela Valley as examples of inequity. He said that while McKeesport is due $1.2 million in reimbursements, they will only receive $41,000 after charter school funds are deducted. He said that Clairton will have to send its entire $230,000 reimbursement to charters and receive nothing.

“Since so many of our schools are hurting due to the budget impasse, we need to answer important legal questions regarding these funds before they are distributed later,” Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-Chester), Democratic chair of the Senate Education Committee, said. “The bottom line is that both public and charter schools are in need of these supplemental gaming funds – funds that do not go through the normal budget process.”

In the letter to the treasurer, Senate Democrats said they do not believe that gaming fund reimbursements constitute “state payments” and that the state law dealing with disbursement of funds never contemplated a budget impasse.

They say that the statute involving the generation of faming funds and property tax relief define the use of funds disbursed from the property tax relief fund. Senate Democrats say that there is no discretion to shift funds earmarked for tax relief to pay operational costs at charter schools.

“Pennsylvania Race Horse Development and Gaming Act and the Taxpayer Relief Act must be read together in order to establish the General Assembly’s intent for the use of the money in the Property Tax Relief Fund,” the letter says.

Costa said that under the Fiscal Code the state treasurer has the authority to withhold payments from the state treasury.

“No payment can be made without the state treasurer’s warrant and approval,” Costa said. “This is a clear case when the law is murky and public schools are being treated inequitably by laws that did not anticipate a long budget impasse.”

Brewster, who met with the secretary of education and budget secretary yesterday about the issue, said he is very concerned about the short-term financial health of school districts if the funds are diverted.

“Many school districts across the state will bear the burden if these funds are released and they are not compensated,” Brewster said. “Given the outstanding legal issues, the responsible course of action is to stop payment until the conflicting interpretations of the law are reconciled.”

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Democrats Press for Shale Tax to Fund $ 1 Billion Education Investment

Harrisburg – June 2, 2015 – Legislative Democrats gathered in the state Capitol for a news conference today to highlight the broad and deep support in the General Assembly for legislation that would create a new $1 billion natural gas extraction tax for education.

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Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) and Democratic Appropriations Chair Vincent J. Hughes (D-Philadelphia) along with House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody (D-Allegheny), Democratic Whip Mike Hanna (D-Clinton) and Democratic Appropriations Chair Joe Markosek (D-Allegheny) in concert with Democratic members of both the Senate and House called on Republicans to move the education investment plan.

In his March budget address, Gov. Tom Wolf proposed a new Marcellus Shale gas extraction tax of 5 percent, with a 4.7 cent tax on volume.  The plan contains a provision to ensure that the distribution of Act 13 fee revenue to communities is maintained.

“There has been far too little talk and too many delays in considering a gas extraction tax plan that would raise $1 billion for education,” Costa said.  “The Republicans in both the Senate and House seem hesitant about addressing the substance of the governor’s proposal and uninterested in examining responsible education investment proposals.”

The governor’s plan would generate an estimated $1.015 billion in fiscal 2016-17.

“The severance tax proposed by the governor is reasonable and responsible and it is in line with the tax rates of the top 10 gas producing states,” Dermody said.  “Republicans have sidestepped the adoption of a reasonable energy tax to fund education investments and have instead moved political issues that do nothing to help students.”

The lawmakers said the $1 billion in new revenues would be used to invest in basic and higher education and help replace dollars slashed by former Gov. Tom Corbett.

“The governor’s plan helps backfill the revenues that were lost when school funding was cut during the Corbett administration,” Hughes said.  “Students, teachers, administrators, parents and taxpayers need help now and will receive a boost if the new investment plan for education is approved.

“The support for moving a plan in both the Senate and House is wide and deep and is illustrated by the number of members of both chambers who turned out today to publicly support using energy taxes for education.”

The plan maintains the Act 13 fee distribution to communities impacted by drilling, at the highest level to date ($225 million).

“A natural gas extraction tax is a substantive, meaningful way of providing for education, while maintaining the payments to communities that are affected by energy extraction,” Markosek said.  “The additional investment for education would be paid by an industry that is engaged in a very profitable activity.”

Costa and Hughes both said that they believe that there is a will in the state Senate to consider a shale energy tax that is earmarked for education.

The senators said that there is far too much disinformation concerning shale extraction being distributed by the industry and threats by the industry to pull out of the state if a reasonable tax were to be imposed are counterproductive.

“We need an industry that is healthy and productive enough to sustain robust job growth,” Costa said.  “The responsible tax that the governor has proposed will not hobble gas extraction.”

Hughes said that the gas drilling is very lucrative.  Last year, he said, the value of gas severed from Pennsylvania wells was $11 billion up from $4 billion in 2011.

“The major gas producers in Pennsylvania have indicated that they expect substantial growth this year,” Hughes said.  “This doesn’t sound like an industry that is ready to vacate.”

Hanna said that members of the House Democratic caucus have been strong advocates of an energy extraction tax because they, like their constituents, “see the relationship between an energy tax on a Pennsylvania-based resource to invest in Pennsylvania’s most valuable resource, our children.”

The current Act 13 fee is insufficient, according to Markosek and needs to be adjusted.  The Act 13 fee is the equivalent of a rate of less than 2 percent.

“Our current impact fee is stagnant. The commonwealth is not sharing in the growth of the natural gas industry,” Markosek said.  “Pennsylvania taxpayers deserve a better, more responsible, approach that is fair to the industry and funds key investments in education and environmental protection.”

The Democrats said that they are willing to consider all responsible proposals.  They said that members of both the Senate and House have offered plans that would be good starting points of discussion but insisted that the lion’s share of funds generated from any of the plans considered be earmarked for education.

They said that they would insist that a reasonable energy extraction tax be included during upcoming budget discussions.

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Contact: Stacey Witalec
Telephone: 717 877-2997
Email: switalec@pasenate.com

Contact: Bill Patton
Telephone: 717 787-3566
Email: BPatton@pahouse.net

 

Brewster Joins Protest of $ 300 Million Education Common Core Mandate

Brewster speaks about his legislation to revamp current system of student testing

Harrisburg, May 14, 2013 – State Sen. James Brewster joined with his Senate Democratic colleagues at a news conference this week to decry a new unfunded education mandate that could saddle cash-strapped school districts with a $300 million expense and threaten graduation for thousands of students across Pennsylvania.

There is no specified funding or plan to provide for the remedial instruction, the redesign of curriculum, or the project-based assessments for those who repeatedly fail the new testing that is part of the Corbett Administration Common Core mandate, according to Brewster (D-McKeesport).  In addition, the senator said that an entirely new testing plan may be necessary.

“There is a serious need to look closer at student testing and develop a better approach that most accurately reflects student achievement and school performance,” Brewster said.  “Today’s testing system is inherently flawed and in dire need of restructuring.”

Recognizing the growing frustration with how student performance is assessed, Senator Brewster has proposed Senate Bill 823, which would create a bi-partisan, bi-cameral commission to evaluate, revise or replace the current system of student testing.

The Student Performance Measurement Advisory Commission would make recommendations to either revise heavily or replace the current testing structures that apply to students, teachers and school districts.

“For too long, too many have had questions about student testing methods– especially now that student test scores are being used for more than evaluation of student performance,” Brewster added.  “We need fair testing, fair standards and an equitable approach.

“Expanding the use of student testing to determine student and school performance, district distress and teacher proficiency is the wrong approach.”

Brewster said that he has spoken to many professional educators and they believe the current tests fail to account for socio-economic, environmental, economic disparities and cultural differences.

“Pennsylvania needs a fair, responsible student testing system that truly reflects performance in the classroom,” Brewster added.  “We need to reorder and refocus what we are doing in regards to student testing.  Using the commission that I’ve called for in SB 823 will give us the platform to make serious, systemic changes in our approach to student testing and its applicability.”

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