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."

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

At Year’s End, Advocates Push for Renewal of Conservation Fund

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

The Land and Water Conservation Fund helps maintain the Allegheny National Forest. (Nicholas A. Tonelli/Wikimedia Commons)
The Land and Water Conservation Fund helps maintain the Allegheny National Forest. (Nicholas A. Tonelli/Wikimedia Commons)
HARRISBURG, Pa. - Advocates are calling on Congress to permanently reauthorize a federal fund that supports parks, nature preserves and outdoor recreational facilities across the country.

Created in 1965, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has helped fund projects in virtually every county in every state. But this fall Congress failed to reauthorize the fund. Gary Thornbloom, who co-chairs the Pennsylvania Sierra Club, called that failure "a broken promise."

"The fund was created as a promise to all Americans that a small - very small - portion of oil and gas royalties from offshore drilling would be invested back in America," he said.

Bills to reauthorize the fund have broad bipartisan support but have failed to clear a critical House committee.

Every year, up to $900 million from offshore oil and gas royalties have gone into the fund, which has provided almost $300 million for projects in Pennsylvania alone. According to Thornbloom, it has helped create and maintain everything from swimming pools to a 21,000-acre wildlife refuge.

"There's been Land Water Conservation Fund projects in the Allegheny National Forest, battlefields, the Flight 93 Memorial had some money involved, Gettysburg, local parks," he said.

Many projects combine Conservation Fund money with matching state and local grants, increasing the impact on local parks and recreational facilities.

A new bill to permanently reauthorize the program, HR 4151, was introduced Dec. 1 in the House. Thornbloom said that bill may be able to bypass the roadblock in the Natural Resources Committee.

"Republicans and Democrats have bought into a compromise, and that would have to go on to the appropriations bill," he said. "I think that's the only way it gets reauthorized in this session."

HR 4151 has gained the support of conservationists who call it a reasonable compromise and a viable path forward for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The bill is online at thomas.loc.gov.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Some Federal Dollars Released to PA Domestic-Violence Programs

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

The state budget impasse has meant the shelter system for domestic-violence victims in Pennsylvania has cut staff and services just to stay open. Credit: Dion Gillard/flickr.com
The state budget impasse has meant the shelter system for domestic-violence victims in Pennsylvania has cut staff and services just to stay open. Credit: Dion Gillard/flickr.com
HARRISBURG, Pa. - The state has been directed to release $1.4 million of federal money to programs for domestic-violence shelters.

The money was being held up in Harrisburg by the continuing budget impasse. More will be coming through the federal Victims of Crime Act.

Peg Dierkers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said the infusion of cash will allow domestic-violence centers in the state to breathe a brief sigh of relief.

"Hopefully," she said, "with a combination of those two pots of federal money, they can keep those crisis services operating until the Legislature and the governor finally pass the total budget."

The federal funds are just part of the $11 million due for domestic-violence programs by the end of this month that have been held up in the budget stalemate.

With no money coming from the state for the past five months, almost all of the 60 domestic-violence centers in the state have had to curtail services. According to Dierkers, that has put lives at risk.

"For example, there's one program in south-central Pennsylvania that has had 200 people who were trying to escape violence in their homes," she said. "They had to turn them away."

She said programs around the state have been borrowing money and laying off staff to maintain some level of service to victims. The federal money will allow some shelters to make payroll for the month, but Dierkers predicted it won't last long.

"Clearly, at the beginning of 2016," she said, "if the budget still is not passed, we'll be back trying to piece together services and trying to keep things going."

She emphasized that domestic-violence victims anywhere in Pennsylvania still can find services through the coalition's website at PCADV.org.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Parents, School Districts Ask Court to Decide Lawsuit

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

A lawsuit claims Pennsylvania's school funding system is unconstitutional. Credit: ludi/pixabay.com
A lawsuit claims Pennsylvania's school funding system is unconstitutional. Credit: ludi/pixabay.com
HARRISBURG, Pa. - Education advocates are asking the state Supreme Court to hear their challenge to the state's school funding system. The state has filed papers asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit filed a yearago by parents and school districts.

Briefs from the legislature and the governor's office say school funding decisions are not a matter for judicial review.

Maura McInerney, senior staff attorney at the Education Law Center, disagrees.

"It's clearly not a political question and in fact a majority of states have considered these school funding cases and have rejected arguments that it presents a political question," says McInerney.

The lawsuit says the state has failed to meet its constitutional obligation to adequately fund schools, and the current funding system violates the constitution's equal-protection clause.

Pennsylvania has the widest gap between funding for rich and poor school districts of any state in the nation. In past lawsuits, the court has said it couldn't decide if funding was adequate to meet educational standards because there was no way to assess whether students were meeting those standards.

McInerney says that's no longer the case.

"In 2015 it's clear that we do have judicially manageable standards," says McInerney. "We have mechanisms to assess how children are doing in school, what their academic outcomes are."

McInerney also points to a state study conducted in 2007 that found school funding fell far short of being adequate to meet academic standards set by the Legislature.

If the court determines the state has failed to meet its constitutional obligations, then McInerney believes it must order the state to adopt a system that will fulfill that mandate.

"A system that will maintain and adequately support public education across the Commonwealth," she says. "A system based on student need that would adequately fund all students to meet state standards."

The Supreme Court is expected to schedule oral arguments in the case in 2016.

One Step Toward Saving Child Health Program

Andrea Sears, Public News Servic

Almost 140,000 Pennsylvania children still have no health insurance. Credit: USCDCP/public-domain-images.com
Almost 140,000 Pennsylvania children still have no health insurance. Credit: USCDCP/public-domain-images.com
HARRISBURG, Pa. – A bill to reauthorize the state's Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, passed in the Pennsylvania House on Tuesday but unless the Senate acts, the program will expire on Dec. 31.

CHIP covers about 150,000 children whose parents make too much to qualify for Medicaid but can't afford private insurance.

Michael Race, vice president of communications with Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, says the vote in the House was an important step forward.

"The vote does give us optimism that this issue will be wrapped up by the end of the year, that the kids who currently benefit from CHIP will continue to benefit and that even more children will benefit in 2016," he states.

The House bill, HB 1633, would also move the CHIP program from the Insurance Department to the Department of Human Services, which also oversees the state's Medicaid program.

According to Race, the move will allow the state to apply what's called express lane eligibility.

"The state could go through records for state subsidized child care or the SNAP program and identify families who, based on income, could be eligible for CHIP or Medicaid and then reach out to those families," he explains.

Despite Pennsylvania's universal coverage policy, almost 140,000 children – about 5 percent of all children in the state – don't have health insurance.

Race maintains using existing state records to identify eligible children could be an important step toward reducing that number.

"In many cases families simply may not be aware that their child could be insured at no cost or at a very low, affordable cost," he points out.

There are currently two bills pending in the Senate that would reauthorize the Children's Health Insurance Program for another two years. In 2013 the reauthorization passed both houses by unanimous votes.