Friday, February 5, 2016

Teachers Back Wolf's Education Budget

 Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

Governor Wolf is calling for a $377 million increase in K-12 funding for this year. (Gov. Tom Wolf/flickr.com)
Governor Wolf is calling for a $377 million increase in K-12 funding for this year. (Gov. Tom Wolf/flickr.com)
HARRISBURG, Pa. - Teachers are praising Gov. Tom Wolf's stand on education funding. In December the governor line-item vetoed all but six months of school funding in the budget passed by the Legislature. In his budget address next week he will ask lawmakers to include the $377 million increase for the current fiscal year that was part of the compromise budget passed by the Senate.

It's a move strongly supported by Jerry Oleksiak, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

"It's needed desperately," says Oleksiak. "If the governor had not signed the blue-lined budget that he did in December we would literally have schools that were closed. And that could still happen."

He says without additional funding now, some schools will be forced to close as early as next month.

House Republicans say the compromise budget of last year is no longer on the table. However Oleksiak points out that in December there was enough support in the House for the compromise to pass, but a vote was never taken.

"Whether or not the House Republicans and the governor can find some common ground remains to be seen," he says. "They did it once. Hopefully they can do it again."

The governor says he will be asking for an additional $200 million increase in education funding for coming fiscal year that begins July first.

Oleksiak says that's an important step toward restoring some of the funds cut under previous administrations.

"But it is not enough to do the things that we want do do for our kids," Oleksiak says. "I think that's sometimes what gets lost in all the discussion. This is about real kids in real classrooms."

Equally important, he says, is adoption of a formula for the equitable distribution of education funding throughout Pennsylvania.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Advocates Call for a Fair State Budget

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Organizations issue fair budget recommendations at the State Capitol on Tuesday. (Bestbudbrian/Wikimedia Commons)
Organizations issue fair budget recommendations at the State Capitol on Tuesday. (Bestbudbrian/Wikimedia Commons)
HARRISBURG, Pa. - Education advocates, environmentalists and human services organizations are calling on the governor and General Assembly to pass a "Budget for Pennsylvania's Future."

The groups are issuing a joint letter today saying the 2016 - 2017 budget needs to fairly raise taxes to adequately fund schools and human services, and protect the environment. According to Marc Stier, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, critical services are still receiving less funding than before the recession.

"We simply need new revenues, and we should raise them in a fair way," says Stier. "Given the problems caused by cuts in corporate taxes, we need to be raising money on corporations, and on those most able to pay."

The budget for the current fiscal year is still unfinished and the Budget and Policy Center points out that unless it is resolved, many schools will run out of money again next month.

The Center has released an analysis of the three competing budget proposals from last year - the governor's proposal, the compromise, and the Republican budget bill that passed the Legislature. According to Stier, only the governor's proposal raised taxes to balance the budget.

"We face a structural deficit in this year, even with the Republican proposal, of $318 million," he says. "And that grows to $2 billion next year."

The problem, he says, is not that state spending has increased. In fact, the budget is smaller compared to the state's overall economy than it was over the last 20 years.

"Had we not cut corporate taxes starting back in the Ridge administration, we would have about $2.5 billion more to spend in the coming year than we actually will have," says Stier.

The analysis found that returning corporate taxes to 2002 levels would help eliminate the deficit and restore funding that has been cut from education and human services.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Supreme Court Gives Second Chances to Juveniles Sentenced to Life

Suzanne Potter, Public News Service 

A U.S. Supreme Court decision grants parole or re-sentencing hearings to people sentenced to life in prison without parole when they were juveniles. (Kconnors/morguefile)
A U.S. Supreme Court decision grants parole or re-sentencing hearings to people sentenced to life in prison without parole when they were juveniles. (Kconnors/morguefile)
HARRISBURG, Pa. - A U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Monday is expected to bring relief to thousands of people serving life sentences in prison for crimes they committed as children.

The high court made retroactive a 2012 ruling that banned mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles, clearing the way for people to ask to be re-sentenced or get a parole hearing.

"Justice (Anthony) Kennedy stressed that the decision to impose life without parole should be almost never invoked," said Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia and co-counsel on the current Supreme Court case, Montgomery vs. Alabama. "They should be able to contemplate the possibility of a life on the outside again."

After the 2012 Supreme Court ruling, Pennsylvania had refused to apply the decision to older sentences. So, this ruling gives new hope to about 500 people behind bars in the Keystone State.

Nate Balis, director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's juvenile-justice strategy group, applauded the decision, saying it is inhumane to sentence someone younger than 18 to die in prison.

"The adolescent brain doesn't fully develop until the mid-20s," he said. "Young people ought to be treated as youth who are still changing and who are capable of changing, which means it should be about their development and not about punishment."

The ruling is online at supremecourt.gov.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Advocates Push for "Long-Overdue" Reform of Toxic Chemicals Law

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

Some imported children's toys may contain toxic chemicals, and health and safety advocates say the government isn't doing enough to test or restrict them. (Joseph Mischyshyn/geograph.ie)
Some imported children's toys may contain toxic chemicals, and health and safety advocates say the government isn't doing enough to test or restrict them. (Joseph Mischyshyn/geograph.ie)
PITTSBURGH – For the first time in 40 years, the federal Toxic Substances Control Act is being reformed, and advocates for the changes say the results could give Pennsylvanians a much-needed layer of protection.

Chemicals are everywhere, including in children's toys, household products and construction materials.

Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, executive director of Women for a Healthy Environment, points out that since the law passed in 1976, more than 83,000 chemicals have been used in commerce, but the Environmental Protection Agency has only reviewed 200, and regulated just five.

"So, there's general consensus that that particular act is woefully broken,” she states. “It's not doing anything at this point to really protect public health and the environment."

Reform bills have passed both houses of Congress, although both bills contain provisions that she believes would hinder the law's effectiveness.

The Senate bill, for example, would block states from taking any new action on a chemical while the EPA is conducting its assessment.

With no law on the books in Pennsylvania, Naccarati-Chapkis says consumers here often depend on laws in other states, such as California's Prop 65 warning label requirement.

"I was purchasing items for my children,” she relates. “One of them contained a Prop 65 warning label saying it may contain lead and phthalates, and so that gave me pause to select another product on the shelf."

Phthalates are a hormone-disrupting chemicals used in some plastics.

There are also provisions Naccarati-Chapkis says would be major improvements on the existing law, including setting a minimum number of chemicals to be tested each year.

She’s counting on the final result being the best of both the House and Senate bills.

"So, we are at a time where we must ensure that the commonsense approaches are a part of that conversation as these bills get reconciled in Congress, in early 2016," she states.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Keystone Progress Summit Announces U.S. Candidate Debate



Keystone Progress Summit Announces U.S. Candidate Debate
Keystone Progress predicts “most insightful and interesting debate of the year.”

(HARRISBURG, PA)—The 2016 Keystone Progress Summit will open with a debate among the
Democratic U.S. Senate candidates on Friday, February 19.

All three Democratic candidates, John Fetterman, Katie McGinty and Joe Sestak have confirmed their participation.

Ritchie Tabachnick, the chair of the board of directors of Keystone Progress, predicts that “This debate will be the most insightful and interesting debate of the year.  Our questions will not be the questions you have heard at other events.”


The debate will be held at the Hilton Harrisburg, in the Harrisburg Ballroom.  It will start at 6:00 PM on Friday, February 19.

The debate features candidates who will be on the ballot in the April Democratic primary.  Incumbent Senator Pat Toomey was also invited to the debate. He declined to participate.

You can register to attend the Summit, or just the debate at www.keystoneprogresssummit.org


Pennsylvania Faces Coverage Gap for Hispanic Children

Andrea Sears, Public News Service
Hispanic children are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, and yet are less likely to be insured than other children. (ryse5/pixabay.com)
Hispanic children are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, and yet are less likely to be insured than other children. (ryse5/pixabay.com)
PHILADELPHIA - During the first year of the Affordable Care Act, Pennsylvania made little progress getting more Hispanic children covered with health insurance, according to a new report.

The Georgetown University Center for Children and Families says 22,000 Hispanic kids, about 7.5 percent, had no insurance in 2014, a significantly higher rate than other children.

Sonya Schwartz, policy fellow at the center, says getting insurance to all kids is vital because they are the future and healthy children are healthy learners.

"We know that Latino children are the fastest-growing segment of our entire population," says Schwartz. "They're growing from one in four children today, to one in three children by 2050. And Hispanic children will be our nation's future doctors, teachers and workers."

The report says the vast majority of Hispanic children in Pennsylvania are citizens or legal residents and eligible for Medicaid or CHIP, the Children's Health Insurance Program.

Colleen McCaulley, healthy policy director at Public Citizens for Children and Youth in southeastern Pennsylvania, says the state could do more to better inform parents about the insurance programs that are available.

"Doing more targeted outreach in Spanish, and helping to inform families that participation in these programs does not have consequences on their immigration status," she says.

McCaulley points out Pennsylvania's health insurance programs do not disclose information about immigration status.

Nationally, the first year of the Affordable Care Act saw the number of uninsured Hispanic children drop by about 15 percent. But according to Schwartz, that still leaves almost 10 percent with no health insurance.

"There are 1.7 million uninsured Hispanic kids in this country," Schwartz says. "Two out of three of those kids, or more than 1 million kids, are right now eligible for Medicaid and CHIP, and unenrolled."

The Georgetown report notes Hispanic children are much more likely to have health insurance in states that have taken multiple steps to expand coverage for both children and parents.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Wolf Releases Emergency Funds to PA Schools

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

Gov. Tom Wolf will release six months of school funding. (Gov. Tom Wolf/Flickr)
Gov. Tom Wolf will release six months of school funding. (Gov. Tom Wolf/Flickr)
HARRISBURG, Pa. - Schools and social-service agencies finally are going to get some state funds, but the budget battles aren't over yet.

Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday said he would issue line-item vetoes on portions of the budget approved by the Legislature late last week. Calling it "a ridiculous effort in budget futility," Wolf called on legislators to return to Harrisburg and finish the job.

"In the meantime, I'm vetoing their $95 million cut to education," says Wolf. "I'm also vetoing other items that they don't pay for in their so-called budget."

Wolf said he would release six months of state funding for schools and social-service agencies on an emergency basis, as well as federal education dollars that have not been disbursed.

The governor and Legislature had agreed to a budget compromise that passed in the Senate but wasn't brought up for a final vote in the House before legislators went home for the holidays.

Deborah Gordon Klehr, director of the Education Law Center, says the money being released by the governor does include $30 million in increases for early childhood and special education.

"This is not the full amount that had been agreed to between the governor and the Legislature earlier," she says. "But it reflects an understanding that our schools cannot remain open without any funding."

Klehr says even the compromise budget was far short of the amount of funding that schools need, but she calls it a step in the right direction.

"Everyone needs to return to Harrisburg and to the negotiating table immediately," she says. "A full budget must be passed as soon as possible that makes the needed investment in our children and reflects Pennsylvania's values."

With no state funding coming in, school districts statewide were forced to borrow more than $430 million over the last two months to keep their doors open.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Philadelphia Mayor Revises ICE Policy

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

The revised policy is supposed to apply only to violent felons. (ICE/ Wikimedia Commons)
The revised policy is supposed to apply only to violent felons. (ICE/ Wikimedia Commons)
PHILADELPHIA - With just two weeks left in office, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter on Tuesday signed an executive order that advocates say threatens immigrants held in city jails with deportation.

The policy means the city will inform federal immigration officials when immigrants with criminal records or deemed to be a threat will be released. According to Nicole Kligerman, community organizer of the New Sanctuary Movement, ICE agents will then meet the immigrants as they exit the jail.

"This rolls back the historic policy that he signed in April 2014 that put Philadelphia on the cutting edge of the immigrants' rights movement, and is really a stab in the back to immigrants and their supporters in our city," says Kligerman.

Mayor-elect Jim Kenney has said he will reinstate the city's noncooperation policy when he takes office on Jan. 4.

The revised policy is supposed to apply only to those convicted of violent felonies or suspected of terrorism. But in the past, many immigrants have been separated from their families and deported over old, relatively minor convictions.

Other municipalities have declared themselves "sanctuary cities" and refused to cooperate with immigration authorities. Kligerman says this reversal in Philadelphia may play into the growing anti-immigrant climate in U.S. politics.

"This move by Mayor Nutter sends a very troubling message to other cities and towns in Pennsylvania and across the country who have been looking to Philadelphia for its leadership," says Kligerman.

The policy change was first announced in early November. Kligerman credits advocates with delaying the change, and preventing deportations, for six weeks.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Pricing Carbon to Clean the Air

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

A new report projects big declines in Pennsylvania's agricultural production if climate change continues. (Brenna Fitzpatrick/flickr.com)
A new report projects big declines in Pennsylvania's agricultural production if climate change continues. (Brenna Fitzpatrick/flickr.com)
PHILADELPHIA - A business group has released a report highlighting ways carbon pricing can be used to help meet the goals of the Clean Power Plan.

The report, called "Carbon Pricing Works," was commissioned by Pennsylvania Businesses for a Healthy Climate and said that a market-based system can not only help reduce pollution but create jobs and spur economic development.

Jamie Gauthier, executive director of the Sustainable Business Network in Philadelphia, said carbon pricing means including health and environmental costs in the price of coal, oil and gas.

"In many states," she said, "the fees from carbon pricing have been used towards research and development for clean-energy technologies and towards helping people to lower their energy cost."

The report said adopting a carbon pricing plan now would help the state reach the Clean Power Plan's requirement of a 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030.

Gauthier pointed to Philadelphia's plans to meet Clean Water Act requirements by changing the way it handles stormwater runoff as an example of how cleaning up the environment makes good business sense.

"That set up a market where the existing businesses that interface with the green storm water infrastructure industry are thriving and new business are sprouting up. We think the same thing can happen in the area of clean energy."

Nationally, the growth of wind power created 23,000 new jobs last year, and solar-power production now employs more people than does the mining industry.

Gauthier said global climate change is a direct result of the impact of business on the environment, and business must be part of the solution as well.

"It's reasonable to assume that if some of this came from the way that we were acting economically," she said, "that it can also be improved by acting in a different way economically."

In Pennsylvania, there already are more than 4,200 clean-energy businesses employing some 57,000 people.

The report is online at biz4climate.org.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

"Unsung Heroes" Need Senate Vote on Caregiver Bill - AARP

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

One-point-six million Pennsylvanians serve as unpaid family caregivers. (Jonathan Banks/flickr.com)
One-point-six million Pennsylvanians serve as unpaid family caregivers. (Jonathan Banks/flickr.com)
HARRISBURG, Pa. - Advocates are asking the State Senate to pass a bill that would give those caring for family members at home some needed help, at no expense to the state. The CARE Act passed in the House last June, but so far the bill hasn't come to the floor of the Senate for a vote. Bill Johnston-Walsh, state director with AARP, says it would require hospitals to designate a family caregiver for patients while they're in the hospital.

"They'll notify the family caregiver that the loved one is going to be discharged," says Johnston-Walsh. "And it's going to require training of any medical task to be given to the family caregiver that they're going to be asked to perform at home."

Versions of the CARE Act, known as HB 1329, have been adopted in more than a dozen other states.

According to AARP, unpaid family caregivers in Pennsylvania provide an estimated 1.5 billion hours of care every year. Surveys indicate most older adults want to stay at home for as long as possible and as Johnston-Walsh points out, the alternatives are much more expensive.

"Once they go on Medicaid the state starts picking up the cost and it's much more expensive to keep them in a facility than to keep them at home," he says.

Family caregivers provide more than $19 billion worth of care in Pennsylvania every year.

Johnston-Walsh says it's time for the Senate to help those who make it possible for seniors to stay at home to get the help they need.

"We have 1.6 million caregivers in the state," he says. "And they're the unsung heroes that really need this legislation, the CARE Act, House Bill 1329, passed."