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The Pew Charitable Trusts, examines five policy areas, including maintaining health care if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, states' overall fiscal health and renewable energy.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.