Friday, May 26, 2017

Aging as LGBT Brings Unique Challenges

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

LGBT Americans have special needs as they reach retirement age. (CityofStPete/Flickr)
LGBT Americans have special needs as they reach retirement age. (CityofStPete/Flickr)
HARRISBURG, Pa. – With LGBT Pride celebrations just around the corner, a new report shows that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender adults are facing unique challenges as they grow older.

From the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" to the recognition of same-sex marriage, recent years have brought tremendous advances in LGBT rights.

But, according to report author Heron Greensmith, senior policy analyst at the Movement Advancement Project, past discrimination still is taking a toll on the 2.7 million LGBT Americans over age 50.

"A lifetime of discrimination and a lifetime of a lack of legal and social recognition of LGBT relationships creates economic insecurity, social isolation, and leads to minority stress and poorer health," Greensmith explains.

The report recommends steps to address these disparities including spousal benefits for those whose partners died before marriage was allowed, and reinstatement of benefits to veterans discharged because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Some disparities persist, especially in states that have not passed laws banning LGBT discrimination. Greensmith points to a recent test in which older same-sex couples applied for housing.

"In 10 percent of the tests, the same-sex couples were quoted rental prices at least $100 more than the different-sex couples, and in fact, half of the couples experienced overt discrimination," Greensmith says.

Greensmith notes that some of the progress of recent years now is being threatened by discriminatory policies on the national and state levels.

For example, they note that questions about sexual orientation and gender identity have been removed from a draft of a national survey used to determine what services older Americans need.

"When a population can point to data showing it needs specific, targeted services and programs, they're more likely to receive funding to fund those programs and services," Greensmith adds.

Greensmith also adds that this data will be crucial as more LGBT adults reach retirement age.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Bill Would Close Exemptions in PA Smoke-Free Law

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

The 2008 Clean Indoor Air Act allows smoking in some bars and restaurants, private clubs and casinos. (DucDigital/Flickr)
The 2008 Clean Indoor Air Act allows smoking in some bars and restaurants, private clubs and casinos. (DucDigital/Flickr)
HARRISBURG, Pa. – A bill has been introduced to eliminate exemptions in Pennsylvania's Clean Indoor Air Law.

Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death nationwide, and every year secondhand smoke kills about 42,000 non-smokers nationally. Pennsylvania spends more than $6.3 billion annually on smoking-related healthcare costs.

While the 2008 law created smoke-free environments to protect some workers and others from the dangers of secondhand smoke, according to Brad Cary, the coalition manager for the Breathe Free Pennsylvania Coalition, the law also allowed many exceptions to the indoor smoking ban.

"In 2008, I guess you could say, they picked winners and losers in the bill so the remaining exemptions, the big ones, are the remaining bars and restaurants that allow smoking, private clubs and casinos," he explains.

House Bill 1309 would end many of the existing exemptions, extend the law to include e-cigarettes and allow local governments to pass even stronger ordinances.

Cary says the existing law essentially creates two classes of hospitality workers, those who are forced to work in smoke-filled environments and those who are not.

"Why should others be exposed to that when we could enact a law that would strengthen what we currently have on record and cover everybody - a full, comprehensive law?" he asks.

Members of the Breathe Free Pennsylvania Coalition include the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society's Cancer Action Network, and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Report Finds PA School Funding Inadequate, Unfair

Andrea Sears, Public News Service
Pennsylvania schools with the fewest white students receive $2,000 a year less per pupil, according to a new report. (lourdesnique/Pixabay)
Pennsylvania schools with the fewest white students receive $2,000 a year less per pupil, according to a new report. (lourdesnique/Pixabay)

PHILADELPHIA – Years of underfunding Pennsylvania's public schools has led to inequalities affecting low-income districts and communities of color, according to a new report.

The Education Law Center report, entitled "Money Matters in Education Justice," says the Keystone State ranks 46th in the nation for state share of revenue for public schools. And Pennsylvania is one of only 14 states with a regressive funding system, giving the fewest resources to the poorest schools with the highest needs.

According to Deborah Gordon Klehr, the Education Law Center executive director, that has led to glaring racial disparities in education funding.

"Schools with large populations of students of color receive less per-pupil funding overall than schools with a larger white-student population, and they're also shouldering higher local tax burdens," she said.

The report cites research showing that schools with the fewest white students receive almost $2,000 a year less per pupil.

Last year, the state adopted a fair-funding formula designed distribute state education dollars more equitably. But, as Klehr points out, that formula only applies to new state spending.

"Of the $5.9 billion that the state spends on basic education funding, only about 6 percent of that is sent through the formula," she added.

The Education Law Center says children in many communities are being shortchanged and that to address the inequities, the state needs to significantly increase school funding overall.

Klehr notes that the Pennsylvania Constitution guarantees all children will have access to a "thorough and efficient" system of public education.

"Despite this constitutional mandate, many children - especially children of color and children in low-income communities - are not given the necessary educational tools for success," she explained.

Data from the Pennsylvania Department Education and other studies estimate the Commonwealth needs to increase education spending by between $3 billion and $4.5 billion a year.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

House Bill Would Divert More Public Money to Private Schools

Andrea Sears, Public News Service
House Bill 250 would expand two educational tax-credit programs by a total of $75 million. (Jared Kofsky/Wikimedia Commons)
House Bill 250 would expand two educational tax-credit programs by a total of $75 million. (Jared Kofsky/Wikimedia Commons)

HARRISBURG, Pa. – State representatives in Harrisburg on Monday passed a bill that critics say would effectively divert state tax money to private and religious schools and other organizations. HB 250 would expand the Educational Improvement Tax Credit by $50 million, and the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit by $25 million. The two programs already allow corporations up to $125 million in tax breaks for supporting private schools.

While not a direct expenditure of state funds, Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania, points out that, in practice, HB 250 would accomplish virtually the same thing.

"What it does is, it reduces the money that's available for public education and everything else by $75 million," she said.

The bill's sponsors say HB 250 would expand school choice opportunities and help more students escape from failing schools. But according to Spicka, the law itself rules out verifying that the money actually is achieving that goal.

"The original law explicitly prohibits collecting any kind of information about whether or not students are leaving lower-achieving schools to go to higher-achieving schools, so we really have no idea which students are getting these scholarships," she explained.

The law also prohibits tracking achievement to determine if students perform better in the private schools.

Spicka adds that even families earning more than $100,000 are eligible to receive scholarships, and the schools themselves can pick and choose which students they take.

"These are schools that are allowed to discriminate against any student for any reason," she added. "So they can discriminate against students who are disabled, or are poor, or are students of color, and they can still receive these tax dollars."

HB 250 now goes to the state Senate for its consideration.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Study Finds Undocumented Immigrants Boost PA's Economy

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Undocumented immigrants in Pennsylvania pay about $135 million in state and local taxes. (stevepb/Pixabay)
Undocumented immigrants in Pennsylvania pay about $135 million in state and local taxes. (stevepb/Pixabay)
HARRISBURG, Pa. - Undocumented immigrants pay millions in state and local taxes in Pennsylvania every year, according to a new report.

The study by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy gives estimates of the total of sales, real estate, and state and local income taxes paid by undocumented workers in all 50 states. According to Meg Wiehe, director of programs at the institute, undocumented immigrants nationally pay close to $12 billion in state and local taxes each year. She said that would increase another $2 billion if they were allowed to work legally by comprehensive federal immigration reform.

"In Pennsylvania, our report estimates that undocumented immigrants currently contribute around $135 million in state and local taxes," she said, "and that amount would increase by roughly $51 million under reform."

The report noted that many undocumented immigrants also pay federal payroll and income taxes, as well as excise taxes on necessities such as fuel. While immigrants often are portrayed as drains on public resources, they cannot access many of the programs their tax dollars support. Wiehe said she thinks the question that should be asked is whether they're paying their "fair share."

"And the answer is yes, definitively yes," she said. "In fact, they're paying a higher share of their income in state and local taxes than the average taxpayer in the top 1 percent."

On average, the report showed, undocumented immigrants pay 8 percent in state and local taxes, on a par with middle-income taxpayers.

An estimated 137,000 undocumented immigrants are living in Pennsylvania. Wiehe said she believes any mass-deportation policy would cost more than the billions in tax revenue they contribute to the state and nation.

"Forcing out that many people would inevitably entail huge disruptions to the economy, as well as to our social and political fabric, that go far beyond the loss of workers and tax dollars," she said.

A 2010 report from the Congressional Budget Office said full immigration reform at the federal level would generate more than $450 billion of federal revenue over the next 10 years.

More informtion is online at itep.org.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Budget Watchdog: Bigger Military Budget Could Hurt PA

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

A higher proposed military budget would mean cuts to domestic spending and foreign aid. (USAF/Wikimedia Commons)
A higher proposed military budget would mean cuts to domestic spending and foreign aid. (USAF/Wikimedia Commons)
HARRISBURG, Pa. – State budgets would suffer under President Trump's proposal for an increase in defense spending, according to a nonpartisan budget research group.

The National Priorities Project says the United States already spends more on defense than the next seven largest military budgets in the world combined.

The proposed $54 billion hike in military spending, or almost 10 percent, would be carved out of domestic spending and foreign aid.

Lindsay Koshgarian, the group's research director, explains states would be huge losers if those cuts take place.

"States get, on average, about 30 percent of their budgets from the federal government, and this is about a 10-percent cut to domestic spending," she explained. "You can definitely expect that to trickle down to the state."

Pennsylvania is already facing a $1.7-billion-dollar budget shortfall for this fiscal year, which could grow to $3 billion by 2021.

Koshgarian points out that many states are dealing with big deficits, and further cuts will only make those deficits worse.

"We can expect to see that, in things like education and local maintenance of roads and things that cities and states primarily take care of, but a lot of federal funding helps to shore those things up," she added.

Democrats in Congress are particularly set against cuts to domestic spending and there is opposition to some of President Trump's proposals among some Republicans as well.

And Koshgarian notes another obstacle to the president's plan. Under the 2011 Budget Control Act, any increase in defense spending must be matched by an increase in domestic spending.

"That is in law right now," she said. "And it would take 60 members of the Senate in order to change that law."

The president has said he will not ask for cuts to Social Security, Medicare, veterans benefits or law enforcement.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Health Professionals Urge Halt to Attacks on Clean-Air Protections

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

Methane leaks can occur at every step, from the well to the consumer. (Tim Evanson/flickr.com)
Methane leaks can occur at every step, from the well to the consumer. (Tim Evanson/flickr.com)
PITTSBURGH – Forty-thousand doctors, nurses and public-health professionals have asked the oil and gas industry to stop opposing policies to reduce methane emissions.

In an open letter to the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry lobbying group, the health advocates point out that opposing regulations that restrict methane emissions endangers public health. The gas developers are urging state legislators to support a bill that would prohibit the Department of Environmental Protection from having stricter regulations than those mandated by the federal government.

And as doctor Ned Ketyer, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Environmental Health, notes, the Trump administration does not like regulations.

"The administration has made it very clear that as early as this week they're going to start rolling back and removing regulations that protect public health," he said.

The gas industry counters that burning natural gas is cleaner than burning coal or oil, and therefore helps clean the environment.

But Ketyer dismisses that argument. He compares it to saying that putting a filter on a cigarette makes the smoke cleaner.

"Technically, yeah, maybe it is," he conceded. "Practically, it's irrelevant because health-care providers know that smoke is toxic and it's going to hurt people, and it's going to hurt people badly."

Methane, the main component of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas, and emissions also can contain particulate matter and volatile organic compounds that form smog.

While Ketyer stresses that, ultimately, the best public health solution is to end reliance on fossil fuels, the means to drastically reduce emissions from the well pad to the home are available now.

"We have the ability, we have the technology, and it's not terribly expensive for the industry to do everything they can to capture every cubic foot of methane," explained Ketyer.

He adds that regulations are particularly important in states such as Pennsylvania where natural gas is produced, leading to much higher emission levels.

Monday, February 13, 2017

State Senate Passes Bill to Punish PA Sanctuary Cities

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

The ACLU says it has seen cases in which U.S. citizens have been held in Pennsylvania jails on erroneous ICE detainers. (Neil Conway/Flickr)
The ACLU says it has seen cases in which U.S. citizens have been held in Pennsylvania jails on erroneous ICE detainers. (Neil Conway/Flickr)
HARRISBURG, Pa. - A bill that has passed in the state Senate would penalize sanctuary cities and counties in Pennsylvania.

Senate Bill 10 would withhold state money from municipalities that don't cooperate with federal immigration authorities. According to Sara Rose, an attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania, that could put places in a double bind for not complying with federal requests to hold a person in detention for possible immigration proceedings.

"If county jails hold people under these ICE detainers and it turns out that there's no probable cause to believe that the person is in the country without authorization," she said, "the county can be liable for damages to the person who's being held."

SB 10 now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration. Proponents of the legislation say it is about upholding the rule of law, but Rose pointed out that ICE detainers are only administrative requests and are not reviewed by a judge. She said the detainers often are issued by ICE field agents based solely on suspicion that a person may not have authorization to be in the country.

"In fact, we've had two cases here, just in Pennsylvania," she said, "on behalf of U.S. citizens who were held in jail on immigration detainers that had been issued erroneously."

Nineteen jurisdictions in Pennsylvania have announced their intentions to not cooperate with federal immigration authorities. If the bill becomes law, Rose said, the ACLU would look for ways to challenge it in court.

"We think it sets a dangerous precedent," she said, "and can really cause problems for municipalities and their relationship with immigrant communities."

Gov. Tom Wolf's office has expressed concerns about the legality of some aspects of the legislation.

The text of SB 10 is online at legis.state.pa.us.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Pennsylvania Facing More Fiscal Woes

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Growing deficits and few reserves make Pennsylvania's budget problems worse than that of most other states. (Jason Burmeister/flickr.com)
Growing deficits and few reserves make Pennsylvania's budget problems worse than that of most other states. (Jason Burmeister/flickr.com)
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Pennsylvania is one of many states facing tough financial times, according to a series of articles examining issues facing state legislatures.

State of the States 2017 from Stateline, a project of The Pew Charitable Trusts, examines five policy areas, including maintaining health care if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, states' overall fiscal health and renewable energy.

According to Scott Greenberger, Stateline’s executive editor, the Keystone State's budget is in worse shape than most other states.

"It has very little in its rainy day fund, its reserve fund, and it is on pace for a $600 million budget shortfall in the coming months," he points out.

This year, 31 states are facing budget gaps. But with just two-tenths of 1 percent of annual expenditures in its reserve fund, Pennsylvania lags far behind many other states in being able to weather tough economic times.

Pennsylvania was one of the states that took advantage of the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act with the federal government picking up most of the tab. But with the possible repeal of the ACA, Greenberger says the state may face tough choices.

"If that money goes away, the question will be whether states want to continue to cover the people who benefited from that expansion or not," he explains.

One recent report estimated that ACA repeal could double the state deficit and cost 137,000 jobs.

As a coal, oil and gas producer, the state may benefit financially from renewed support in Washington for fossil fuels. But Greenberger notes that Pennsylvania also is one of the 29 states that has a renewable-energy standard.

"Which means that it requires that a certain amount of the electricity sold in the state comes from approved renewable or alternative sources," he points out.

State of the States 2017 gives examples of how states have dealt successfully with the challenges that Pennsylvania and other states now face.

The Pew Charitable Trusts provided support for this reporting.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Advocates Urge Caution in Closing Prisons

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

More than 49,000 inmates currently are held in Pennsylvania state prisons. (ErikaWittlieb/pixabay.com)
More than 49,000 inmates currently are held in Pennsylvania state prisons. (ErikaWittlieb/pixabay.com)
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Governor Tom Wolf wants to close two state prisons to cut costs, but civil-rights advocates fear that could lead to overcrowding. Closing the prisons by June 30th could save the cash-strapped commonwealth as much as $160 million in the coming fiscal year. There are fewer prisoners in the state than there were at the peak five years ago.

But, according to spokesperson Andrew Hoover with the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the overall decrease in population of the state's 26 prisons has been less than five-percent.

"It's necessary to monitor how that transition happens and if it happens smoothly," he said. "We don't want to see a situation where inmates are being crowded into fewer prisons and as a result, conditions deteriorate."

Legislators with prisons in or near their districts are concerned by a potential loss of jobs. Just which prisons will close could be announced Thursday.

But the state didn't always have so many prisoners. Hoover points out that, like many states, Pennsylvania adopted "get tough on crime" laws in the 1980s with minimum mandatory sentences and longer terms for parole eligibility.

"The long sentences in Pennsylvania's sentencing structure have led to an increase in the prison population at a time when the crime rate was actually going down," he explained.

Around 1980, there were just over 8,000 inmates in Pennsylvania's state prisons. Today there are more than 49,000.

Much of the increase in the prison population has been driven by the war on drugs. Some legislators acknowledge that mass incarceration has not solved the problem. Hoover says now they need to do something about it.

"There hasn't been the kind of restructuring of sentencing that's necessary to fulfill that promise, to make drugs more of a public-health issue than a criminal issue," he added.

Hoover notes that other states have been reducing their prison populations at much faster rates than Pennsylvania.

Advocates: Repealing Obamacare Will Hit PA Children Hard

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Medicaid expansion helped reduce the rate of uninsured children in Pennsylvania to 4.1 percent. (James Gathany, Judy Schmidt, USCDCP)
Medicaid expansion helped reduce the rate of uninsured children in Pennsylvania to 4.1 percent. (James Gathany, Judy Schmidt, USCDCP)
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Child advocates say repeal of the Affordable Care Act would leave thousands of Pennsylvania kids without health insurance. President Trump and congressional Republicans already are taking steps to repeal the landmark health-care law.

According to Joan Benso, president and CEO of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, that would reverse the gains the state has made toward getting all children insured.

"Some kids could lose coverage because they had pre-existing conditions," she said. "Other children could lose coverage because they are over the age limit of when you could stay on your parents' health insurance prior to ACA."

Almost 90,000 young adults who have "aged-out" of their parents' health insurance or extended Medicaid for foster children would become uninsured.

Benso pointed out that when parents get health insurance, so do their children – and prior to the ACA, there were more than 130,000 uninsured parents in Pennsylvania.

"The expansion of Medicaid in our state helped more of those families come into coverage, and we watched the number of children who were uninsured decrease," she explained.

She said the Medicaid expansion helped reduce the uninsured rate for children in Pennsylvania to 4.1 percent, an all-time low.

While federal legislators have said the Affordable Care Act will be replaced by "something better," just what that replacement would be has not been made clear. Still, Benso concedes that there may be some parts of the law that should be repealed.

"But this conversation needs to slow down until those details are on the table," she added. "We can examine them and say, 'What are the pros and cons of the alternative?'"

Right now, she said, the federal government picks up about 90 percent of the cost of the Medicaid expansion and CHIP, the Children's Health Insurance Program, in Pennsylvania, money the state cannot afford to replace.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Report Offers Legal Guidance on Sanctuary

 Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

Fearing stepped-up ICE raids, many areas are increasing protections for immigrants. (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement/Wikimedia Commons)
Fearing stepped-up ICE raids, many areas are increasing protections for immigrants. (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement/Wikimedia Commons)
HARRISBURG, Pa. – A new report offers guidance to state and local jurisdictions and institutions that want to protect immigrants threatened with deportation. About 400 counties, cities and states around the country, as well as churches, schools and hospitals, already have taken steps to create sanctuary for immigrants in their communities.

Joanna Cuevas Ingram, associate counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF and co-author of the report, says with widespread fear of racial profiling, hate crimes and mass deportations, the report is intended to give those offering or considering sanctuary some important legal background.

"The U.S. Constitution and civil rights law supports a wide range of local pro-immigrants' rights policies, including policies that protect undocumented community members from draconian federal immigration enforcement," she said.

President-elect Donald Trump has said immigration enforcement efforts will focus on those with serious criminal convictions, but advocates fear millions could be swept up in a wave of mass deportations.

Cuevas Ingram notes that some jurisdictions that already have some form of sanctuary in place now are looking for ways they can do more.

"They have already begun passing even stronger, more inclusive protections and even a bill that would provide some legal support to immigrant members of the community that are facing administrative hearings for deportation," she explained.

Last week the Borough Council of State College, Pennsylvania, voted unanimously to make its community a sanctuary city.

There have been concerns that the federal government could threaten to withhold funds from jurisdictions that offer sanctuary or other protections to immigrants. But Cuevas Ingram says even then, there may be some legal recourse.

"If they do get these threats of withdrawal of funding from the federal government, there is precedent and there are cases that they can look to to find some legal authority to resist any unconstitutional coercion or commandeering," she added.

The report includes a number of policy recommendations for actions that local governments can take to protect their undocumented community members.