Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Budget Vote Could Shape Pennsylvania Education for Years

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Past cuts to school funding have hit poor school districts in Pennsylvania the hardest. Credit: Cole Stivers/Pixabay.
Past cuts to school funding have hit poor school districts in Pennsylvania the hardest. Credit: Cole Stivers/Pixabay.
HARRISBURG, Pa. – On Wednesday the state House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on a package of revenue sources that could help restore past cuts to education funding.

Budget cuts imposed on education in 2011 have made educational inequality worse in the state.

According to Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center, Pennsylvania now has the widest gap between rich and poor districts of any state in the nation.

"The revenue bill is not by itself the solution to our funding crisis," she says, "but it is a necessary step toward closing the gap between the wealthiest and poorest school districts."

Even if the revenue bill passes, it still doesn't guarantee that any increase in funds will go to education – that depends on passage of a budget bill.

Klehr says Pennsylvania's most vulnerable students, including those living in poverty, in foster care and in the juvenile justice system, as well as English language learners, need the legislature to pass a budget that increases school funding.

"These are the students that have been hardest hit by funding inequality," she says. "We must ensure that new dollars are directed to these schools by restoring funds lost in the 2011 cuts and shift towards a fair funding formula."

Without new sources of revenue, the state will face a budget deficit next year of more than $2 billion, which advocates say could lead to more cuts to schools and human services.

In June, the state Assembly passed a budget that included a $100 million increase in education funding. According to Klehr, that amount is inadequate.

"We support the adoption of a budget that increases basic education funding by at least $410 million," she says, "and begin implementation of the new funding formula that was unanimously adopted by the Education Funding Commission."

As the budget impasse continues, schools are being forced to borrow money to keep their doors open, adding an additional $11 million in interest and other costs to their operating expenses for the year.

Friday, October 2, 2015

EPA Rules for Power Plant Wastewater Called Step Forward

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

Heavy metals in power-plant wastewater can contaminate waterways. Credit: SusanUtley/morguefile.com
Heavy metals in power-plant wastewater can contaminate waterways. Credit: SusanUtley/morguefile.com
PITTSBURGH - Environmentalists are calling new rules for contaminated wastewater from coal-fired steam power plants a victory.

The rules finalized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this week set the first limits on the levels of toxic metals in discharged water. The old rules, last updated in 1982, only covered particulate matter in the water.

Adam Garber, field director at PennEnvironment, said contamination can include a number of different toxic metals.

"It varies by power plant and the source of the coal," he said, "but it can range from barium and selenium to arsenic and can cause problems for the local waterways."

PennEnvironment still is reviewing the new rules. Garber said he believes they are a significant step forward toward protecting the environment, but added that more still needs to be done.

The intake of fresh water and the discharge of hot wastewater into the environment also needs to be addressed, Garber said.

"That thermal pollution, as it's known, can stress the aquatic life and cause significant damage," he said, "and has even been known to cause massive fish kills in these waterways."

According to the power industry, the new rules may force some older power plants to close. The industry may challenge the rules in court.

The EPA rule is online at epa.gov.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Critics: State Pension Bill Would Make New Hires Pay for Past Mistakes

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Negotiations on public employee pension reform remain stalled.  Credit: Ad Meskens/commons.wikipedia.org
Negotiations on public employee pension reform remain stalled. Credit: Ad Meskens/commons.wikipedia.org
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Gov. Tom Wolf this summer vetoed a bill that would have radically altered the public employees' pension fund, but Republican state senators say they're still committed to the bill.

Negotiations on a compromise remain stalled.

Economist Stephen Herzenberg, who heads the Keystone Research Center, says if adopted in its current form,Senate Bill 1 would hurt new hires to the state workforce.

"The Senate Republican pension proposal would give teachers, nurses and other public servants in Pennsylvania the lowest retirement benefits of any large public pension plan in the country," he stresses.

According to a Pension Primer prepared by the research center, even with improvements, SB 1 would cut benefits by up to two-thirds for career workers, leaving many with annual benefits of less than $10,000.

Herzenberg says college educated public employees already are being paid more than 25 percent less than their counterparts in the private sector.

"If you add to that retirement benefits that are lower than the private sector, why are you going to be able to attract good folks?” he asks. “Why are mid-career people going to stay?"

Some provisions of SB 1 would apply to current employees, but the biggest impact would be on pensions for people just entering the workforce.

Wolf has indicated a willingness to compromise on several issues in the current budget impasse, including pensions. But according to Herzenberg, so far the governor is holding firm on maintaining a pension fund that works for all state employees.

"When we get a pension compromise, it will be one that makes sense,” Herzenberg states. “It won't be one like SB 1 that would hurt taxpayers, public employees and state agencies."

The Keystone Research Center's analysis finds that despite the reduced benefits paid to public employees under SB 1, it would provide no meaningful savings to taxpayers.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Enviromentalists to EPA: Expand Methane Emission Rules

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

Pennsylvania is the second largest natural gas producing state in the country. Credit: Ruhrfisch/Wikimedia Commons.
Pennsylvania is the second largest natural gas producing state in the country. Credit: Ruhrfisch/Wikimedia Commons.
PITTSBURGH – Proposed rules on methane emissions are a good start, but don't go far enough. That's the message from environmentalists to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In comments to the agency at a public hearing in Pittsburgh today, advocates say the rules as written would not apply to existing sources of methane. Rob Altenburg, director of PennFuture Energy Center, says Pennsylvania has thousands of gas wells in operation now.

"These new rules target only new and modified sources, so the vast majority of the wells in the state are not likely to be covered by these rules in the near future," he says.

Pennsylvania is currently the second-largest gas producing state in the country.

Jim Murphy, senior counsel with the National Wildlife Federation, says reducing methane emissions would do more than slow global climate change – it would also reduce ozone and other ground level pollution.

"You really get a two for one, you cut carbon emissions to help the climate, and then you also reduce localized pollution that harms wildlife and people who want to enjoy outdoor areas," he says.

In 2012 the federal government initiated measures to reduce methane emissions during the drilling process. Altenburg says the state can step in to control emissions the federal rules may miss.

"What we would like to see is the governor act aggressively to cover the thousands of wells and the thousands of sources that aren't being covered by these rules," says Altenburg.

The EPA has also held hearings on the proposed methane rules in Denver and in Dallas.

Thousands of Janitors Rally to Save Union Jobs

Andrea Sears, Public News Service
Commercial office cleaners in many eastern U.S. cities are currently negotiating new contracts. Courtesy: SEIU Local 32BJ.
Commercial office cleaners in many eastern U.S. cities are currently negotiating new contracts. Andrea Sears, Public News ServiceCourtesy: SEIU Local 32BJ.

PHILADELPHIA – As many as 2,000 janitors will converge on Philadelphia on Wednesday to rally for what they consider good jobs and fair contracts.

More than 75,000 office cleaners from Massachusetts to Virginia are bargaining for contracts this year. Juanita Acre, a member of local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), says good paying union jobs are in jeopardy.

"You got the real estate companies throwing our people out of their building and trying to make it non-union," she says. "This is contract time and it's Important to us to stop them."

The rally will be held outside of a luxury high rise where the union says new building management illegally displaced union workers.

According to Acre, union workers are making a living wage. But while rent on residential and commercial real estate keeps skyrocketing, developers in Philadelphia and other cities are trying to push workers back to minimum wage levels.

"We're making $16.44. Some are making a little more than that," she says. "They're trying to break us down to $7.25, $8.25, $9.25, with no benefit."

The union calls this the largest private sector contract negotiations taking place in the country, affecting the lives of nearly half a million men, women and children.

Acre says the janitors and commercial office cleaners have worked hard to make a decent living for themselves and their families.

"We just want to be part of the middle class," she says. "We're not going to accept anything less. And we think we have what we earned and they're trying to take it away. We're not going to accept that."

The union says fair contracts will go a long way toward addressing the growing income inequality condemned by Pope Francis during his visit to the U.S.

Monday, September 28, 2015

REGISTER NOW: Pennsylvania wind energy forum to lay out vision for growth in the state

Don't miss an opportunity to discuss the path forward for wind energy growth in Pennsylvania at the American Wind Energy Association's State Wind Energy Forum in Harrisburg on October 14.

See more info below or visit their event page here.

The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) will host a day-long forum to discuss the path forward for wind energy growth in Pennsylvania.

John Hanger, Secretary of Planning and Policy, Pennsylvania

Larry Schweiger, President & CEO, PennFuture

Gladys Brown, Commissioner, Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission

Bruce Burcat, Executive Director, Mid-Atlantic Renewable Energy Coalition (MAREC)

Robert Frick, Senior Sales Manager, GE Power and Water

Dave Campbell, Associate Director, Environmental Protection Agency Region 3 Office

Rob Gramlich, Senior Vice President, Government & Public Affairs, AWEA

For a full list of speakers see: http://bit.ly/1L0jCMJ

Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET

Penn State Harrisburg, 777 West Harrisburg Pike, Middletown, Pennsylvania

Wind energy industry leaders, state officials, and renewable energy advocates in Pennsylvania will join in a series of panel discussions and meetings to chart the path forward for wind power in the state.

The forum agenda is designed to appeal to a broad array of Pennsylvania wind stakeholders, including landowners, county officials, rural bankers, agricultural producers, policy makers, manufacturers, developers, educators, researchers, advocates, utilities, economic development specialists, energy specialists, government officials, analysts, and regulatory personnel.

John Hanger, Secretary of Planning and Policy for Pennsylvania, will be kick things off as the opening plenary speaker at 8:30 a.m. ET. Larry Schweiger, President and CEO of PennFuture will be the keynote speaker, delivering remarks at noon.

The AWEA State Wind Energy Forum – Pennsylvania is the third state forum AWEA has hosted this year. Previous events this year were held in Montana and Michigan.

Today, wind power supports 2,000 jobs in Pennsylvania and has attracted $2.7 billion dollars in capital investment to the state’s economy. Pennsylvania is a wind manufacturing leader with 29 factories supporting well-paying jobs throughout the state. With 1,340 MW of installed wind capacity in the state, wind energy currently supplies 1.6 percent of Pennsylvania’s in-state electricity production.

Pennsylvania has the technical wind resource potential to meet 88 percent of the state’s current electricity potential, using current technology and 110 meter hub heights.

Pennsylvania passed an Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard (AEPS) in 2004, requiring electricity suppliers to supply 18 percent of their sales from alternative energy sources by 2021. Wind energy has historically been the renewable resource chosen to meet renewable standards requirements, fulfilling 86 percent of RPS requirements through 2011 and driving economic development in the state as a result.
American wind power supplies more than 25 percent of the in-state electricity production for Iowa and South Dakota. Department of Energy data show wind power is the fifth largest electricity source in the U.S. providing electricity to power the equivalent of 18 million average American homes. Over 73,000 jobs are supported by wind energy and more than 500 factories in 43 states produce parts and supplies for wind. Over $100 billion dollars in private investment has been attracted to the U.S. economy by growing new wind farms.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Pope's Visit Shines Spotlight on Prisons

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

Pope Francis also has visited prisoners in Italy and Bolivia. Credit: Benhur Arcayan/commons.wikimedia.org
Pope Francis also has visited prisoners in Italy and Bolivia. Credit: Benhur Arcayan/commons.wikimedia.org
PHILADELPHIA - Pope Francis will visit a Philadelphia prison Sunday, drawing attention to mass incarceration and the need for criminal-justice reform.

Philadelphia pioneered prison reform as early as the 18th century. Ann Schwartzman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, which was founded in 1787, said the papal visit will help open the door on what has traditionally been a closed system, "looking at what are the best practices across the world, what does make the most sense, and bringing that element of humanity right into the prisons as he visits."

The pope will visit the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, Philadelphia's largest prison, with beds for up to 3,000 inmates. More than half of those held in the facility have not been convicted of a crime but can't afford bail while they await trial.

With more than 2 million people behind bars, the United States has the largest prison population in the world. Schwartzman said she believes that the entire criminal-justice system needs to be examined.

"We need to look at sentencing, who we're incarcerating, conditions inside when people are incarcerated," she said, "and we really need to look at what we're doing to help people when they come back out."

Last July, President Obama visited a federal prison in Oklahoma as part of his efforts to call attention to the need for criminal-justice reform.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Local progressive advocates launch campaign to welcome the Pope’s message of economic justice

For Immediate Release

Contact: Mike Morrill, Keystone Progress Education Fund
             Tara Murtha, Women’s Law Project
             Leah Chamberlain, Philadelphia Women’s Center


Local progressive advocates launch campaign to welcome the Pope’s message of economic justice—and call for real policy solutions
Philadelphia- As you may have heard by now, Pope Francis is coming to Philadelphia this week.

We’ve watched in fascination as the former nightclub bouncer from Buenos Aires now known as Pope Francis—“part rock star, part diplomat and part politician,” according to the New York Times—has shifted the conversation about and within the Roman Catholic Church by preaching compassion, mercy and tolerance.

He even criticized the Church for “putting dogma before love, and for prioritizing moral doctrines over serving the poor and marginalized.” Turns out, listening to and ministering to the poor and advocating for economic justice is a popular message: Not only do 85% of American Catholics approve of Pope Francis, but seven out of ten Americans as a whole.

As advocates for economic justice and reproductive rights, we are welcoming the Pope to Philadelphia by extending the conversations he is starting around issues of poverty and family, and discussing real solutions, under the banner #FrancisLovesMeToo.

We invite you to join us as we explore Pope Francis’ message of mercy and economic justice for struggling families, something we need here in Pennsylvania and especially Philadelphia, a city with the highest rate of deep poverty, where children are routinely ravaged by the effects of poverty and trauma, and women suffer the highest rate of maternal mortality in the country.

We are a community of advocates who fight to see the values espoused by Pope Francis reflected in the state Legislature and our communities. Economic justice and equality are not possible without possible without equal access to reproductive healthcare including contraception and abortion, support for working mothers, and eliminating discrimination.

We will be posting about the status of families in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania all week, and highlighting opportunities for policies to reflect the values being discussed.  

Throughout the week, we invite you to contact us for comment from experts on related issues, such as: reproductive justice, workplace discrimination, poverty as a risk factor for sexual violence, equal pay, contraception, abortion, LGBTQ discrimination, working mothers, healthcare access, the cost of mass incarceration, and raising the minimum wage.

Like www.facebook.com/francislovesmetoo to stay up-to-date on messages from Pennsylvania advocates working to replace discriminatory “family values” rhetoric in Pennsylvania with policies that actually value families: traditional families, modern families, LGBTQ families, poor families, our families, and yours.


Seniors Rally to Support Family Caregiver Bill

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Family members in Pennsylvania provide care for loved ones worth an estimated $19.2 billion annually. Courtesy: AARP.
Family members in Pennsylvania provide care for loved ones worth an estimated $19.2 billion annually. Courtesy: AARP.
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Seniors rallied in the Capitol Rotunda this morning, urging senators to pass the Caregiver Advise, Record and Enable Act (CARE).

Currently, 1.6 million Pennsylvanians are serving as unpaid caregivers for family members. According to Desiree Hung at AARP Pennsylvania, the bill would help ensure that older adults who have been hospitalized get the continuing care they need once they are released.

"They can identify a caregiver who would take care of them once they leave," she says. "And it would provide some training for the caregiver, so that person could care best for their loved one."

The CARE Act passed the House in June with only one dissenting vote, and has been adopted in more than a dozen other states. Hung says AARP is confident the Pennsylvania Senate will pass the bill as well.

She adds they are also asking lawmakers to ensure caregivers have access to home care and adult daycare resources, and to fund additional support with state lottery proceeds.

"People want to stay in their homes as long as possible, and supporting programs to build up home- and community-based care would certainly go a long way to helping people do that," says Hung.

It's estimated family caregivers in Pennsylvania provide more than 1.5 billion hours of unpaid assistance for loved ones every year.

School Funding Lawsuit Goes to State Supreme Court

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is being asked to decide whether the state is meeting its constitutional requirement to provide a thorough and efficient system of public education. Credit: Ad Meskens/Wikipedia.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is being asked to decide whether the state is meeting its constitutional requirement to provide a thorough and efficient system of public education. Credit: Ad Meskens/Wikipedia.
HARRISBURG, Pa. – A lawsuit challenging state funding for public education is going to Pennsylvania's highest court.

According to a coalition of parents, school districts and statewide organizations, the Pennsylvania Legislature has failed to meet its constitutional obligation to adequately and equitably fund public schools.

Jennifer Clarke, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Public Interest Law Center, says all schools are affected by decades of under-funding, although poorer communities have suffered the most.

"'Catastrophic' is too mild a word," says Clarke. "You have children in classrooms with 70 kids, schools with no foreign languages, no nurses."

Last April, a lower court dismissed the lawsuit, saying it was a political issue that cannot be addressed through the court system.

Clarke says that opinion was based on a Supreme Court ruling 15 years ago, before there was a system of statewide standards. Now, both state and federal governments mandate what the content of public education should be – and how to measure the results.

"We still think that the courts have a role," she says. "If the Legislature is going to establish content and require children to know it, it needs to fund it in a way that makes sense."

The plaintiffs in the case maintain that an over-reliance on property taxes to fund schools deprives students in poor districts of the resources they need to meet state academic standards.

Clarke notes the state constitution guarantees all Pennsylvania children a system of public education that is "thorough and efficient."

"Those words are in the constitutions of some half a dozen other states," she says. "All those courts have used that language to say they have substantive meaning that the court has to enforce."

The Legislature, governor, and state Board of Education have six weeks to respond to the Supreme Court brief. The court will likely hear arguments sometime next year.