Monday, July 11, 2011

Emergency Homeowners Loan Program--Hurry!

More than 105 million federal dollars are available to Pennsylvanians in danger of mortgage foreclosure if they meet certain criteria, but there’s a race against the clock since applications must be submitted by September 30th.

The money is part of the $1 billion provided by HUD in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act signed into law in July 2010. Pennsylvania’s share was authorized in October, 2010, and the PA Housing Finance Agency administering the program started accepting applications on April 1st, 2011. Executive Director and CEO Brian Hudson says they’ve approved 700 applications of the 1400 received so far, and they’re looking for 8- to 10,000 more. Homeowners who are three months behind on a mortgage because of unemployment, underemployment or illness may be eligible for a maximum $50,000 declining balance loan for arrearages and 24 monthly mortgage payments.

United Way has launched a new helpline: 2-1-1 that will not only help people apply for the mortgage help but also connect them to other resources they may need, such as utility payment assistance, health care or employment resources.

Bill to Verify Legal Workers on Publicly-Funded Developments

Contractors working in developments funded by Allegheny County may soon be asked to verify that their laborers are cleared to work in the United States.

Allegheny County Council has passed a bill that would require contractors to run their employees’ names through a federal database, to make sure they’re working legally.

Sponsoring Councilman Ed Kress says the legislation is meant to make sure the County’s contractors don’t “cheat” by paying illegal workers less than the federal minimum wage.

The “E-Verify” bill only applies to projects using more than $100,000 in public funds.

Kress says the bill fits in with the county’s history of supporting the labor movement.

“Illegal immigration is diametrically opposed to the labor movement, because the labor movement was about improving the conditions of the workers, improving the wages. Illegal immigration doesn’t do that,” says Kress. “It suppresses the wages. It exploits the workers.”

Kress says while most employees are confirmed by the internet database within a day, anybody who isn’t has time to prove their legal working status.

Liquor Store Privatization Gains Support

Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai is expected to restart his effort to privatize state liquor stores with new legislation this week, with an endorsement from Governor Tom Corbett.

Various estimates say selling liquor licenses to private companies would generate anywhere from $200 million to $2 billion for the state. Turzai says a private system with more outlets would give residents "better selection, lower prices and greater convenience."

But the Independent State Store Union (ISSU), which represents liquor store managers, says Pennsylvania would receive far less yearly revenue under Turzai's proposal.

The new plan would swap the current percentage-based taxes on liquor for a "gallonage tax," which would range in price depending on the type of alcohol being sold. ISSU Policy Director Ed Cloonan says Pennsylvania's percentage taxes generate more revenue per gallon for the state than any gallonage tax in the country.

"And it's not because we have the highest prices. It's because we control the whole ball of wax," says Cloonan. "We collect the 18% tax, which I say is uncollectable in a private system, because those private owners, on day one, would be arguing to the legislature that they can't compete with private stores in other states with that tax."

Cloonan says the state system employs about 2100 full-time employees and 1000 part-time workers, working at about 600 stores.

Turzai introduced a similar measure last year, but it failed in the Democratic-controlled House. This year, backing from the Republican governor and a GOP majority in the House and Senate may win more support for privatization.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Lt. Governor Highlights Marcellus Shale Benefits

As head of Governor Tom Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Committee, Lt. Governor Jim Cawley visited the brand new U.S. headquarter of Talisman Energy in Warrendale, which he says illustrate how the Marcellus Shale industry benefits the state’s economy even in areas where drilling is not taking place.

Lt. Governor Cawley says 60% of the state’s population is in the one-third of the state that is not on top of the Marcellus shale, and they often don’t see the benefits but hear the industry is poisoning the water and not paying its fair share of taxes. Yet he says the Dept. of Revenue has found natural gas activity since 2006 responsible for $1 billion in tax revenues into the general fund
Cawley says even without a severance tax, Pennsylvania taxes are high compared to other states, so it would be possible to drive companies away.

On July 22nd, the Governor’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Committee will present its final recommendations on how best to maximize benefits without compromising public health or the environment.

PA's New HIV Testing Law Praised

Getting tested for HIV has become a little easier in Pennsylvania .

Governor Tom Corbett has signed a bill that would eliminate the need for patients to provide written consent to getting tested for HIV. The new law also axes a state mandate that required doctors to give counseling to all patients who've been tested, regardless of whether they were HIV-positive or -negative.

The American Academy of HIV Medicine says the bill is an important first step to increasing HIV testing rates in the state.

AAHIVM Executive Director Jim Friedman says doctors in both routine and emergency settings must now make HIV testing a routine part of their practices.

He says about a quarter of HIV-positive people don't know they have the virus, and those people are three times more likely to infect others than those who know their status.

Friedman says Pennsylvania was the 46th state in the country to bring its standards in line with recommendations made five years ago by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

Lemonade Stand to Protest Education Cuts

A new lemonade stand on the North Side will be selling cups for ten grand apiece tomorrow.

Activists from One Pittsburgh say they need to sell lemonade at those prices to make up for cuts to education. They say state-level drops in school funding forced Pittsburgh Public Schools to cut 217 jobs.

Kyndall Mason of One Pittsburgh says state leaders aren’t requiring corporations to pay enough in taxes; she says if big businesses contributed more to the state, education spending wouldn’t have been cut.

Mason says One Pittsburgh simply hopes to raise awareness of the education cuts, and she doubts that they’ll sell many of the $5,000 cookies or the $10,000 lemonade.

The group will set up shop in Allegheny West Commons Park at 11:00 a.m. Saturday.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Allegheny Co. Mulls Arguments Against Reassessment

Allegheny County officials say they’ll go to court to stop the countywide property value reassessment – and they may have new ammunition for their legal argument.

County Council President Jim Burn says the state legislature’s move to stop Washington County’s property reassessment may have infringed on the state Supreme Court’s right to impose such moratoriums.

Burn says the County Council Solicitor will look at that legal option and others in the coming weeks, as County leaders hope to get the reassessment halted before the process is completed.

The state legislature should create a statewide system of assessing property values, says Burn, so counties will be treated equally.

“You could have 67 different counties going in 67 different directions,” says Burn.

The County Manager’s office is slated to send out preliminary property values out in January, later than was originally ordered by Common Pleas Judge Stanton Wettick.

Lawmakers Could Push Shale Tax or Fee in Fall

Recent polls show the majority of Pennsylvanians support a fee or tax on natural gas drillers in the Marcellus Shale formation. But, is that enough to push the Legislature to muscle a bill through his fall? A good-government advocate says he believes lawmakers may pass a Shale tax to satisfy their constituents just in time for the campaign season next year. Tim Potts is with the non-partisan Democracy Rising Pennsylvania. He says an extraction impact fee or severance tax is inevitable. Just look at Alaska, Potts says - it collects $11 billion a year in leasing fees and extraction taxes. "Well that’s more than a third of the Pennsylvania state budget in a state that has less than the population of Philadelphia. More and more people are learning that we’re being played for chumps by not getting some money for the resources that we’re sending out of state," Potts says. He says the state’s tax revenue surplus, at more than $785 million, could have been a lot higher if there had been a natural gas driller fee in place. The large Republican majority means GOP lawmakers will have full ownership of bills that pass and fail, so he says they’ll have to answer to voters if there’s no fee or tax in the works come next year’s elections.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Private Companies Interested in Providing LED bulbs to the City

Pittsburgh’s plan to switch its incandescent streetlights to LED bulbs is generating interest among private companies.

Last week, the city sent out a request for proposals to install Phase 1 of the LED Streetlight Project, and about 25 businesses visited Pittsburgh today to express their interest.

Pittsburgh Energy & Utilities Manager Jim Sloss says he expects to decide from a pool of 50 to 70 proposals over the next few weeks; the city hopes to start the project October 1.

Phase 1 of the project only applies to 40 of the city’s business districts, such as areas in Downtown, Oakland, and Shadyside. The first part of the five-phase installation is expected to cost about $2.5 million, while the total project is tentatively priced at about $20 million.

Sloss says the price of LED bulbs has been dropping fairly steadily, though, and the total price tag could fall as time goes on.

Economic Benefits of Shale Gas Touted

The American Petroleum Institute outlined the economics of domestic shale gas production today, which it says may result in a world where no one region of the world will dominate the energy supply, and the United States may not only meet its own needs but even export natural gas.

API Chief Economist John Felmy says the Marcellus Shale has the potential to be one of the largest natural gas fields in the world, and he says hydraulic fracturing can be done safely, with not one confirmed case of underground water supply contamination in the country.

People who live near drilling sites and can no longer use the water from their wells might disagree.

Felmy says a 2009 study by the Manhattan Institute found that shale gas development added more than 44,000 jobs, $389 million in state and local taxes, and nearly $4 billion in value to Pennsylvania’s economy.

Articles in the New York Times recently questioned the true scale of shale gas in the U.S., but Felmy says shale gas production tripled between 2006 and 2010 and will make up 40% of domestic production by 2020. The Department of Energy says shale gas was 15% of domestic production in 2009 and may be 25% by 2035.

Penn State Professor Terry Engelder is a member of Governor Tom Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Commission, which will issue its recommendations on or about July 22nd. He says members were astounded by the scale of economic activity in Williamsport over the last three years due to Marcellus Shale development. To critics who say the energy companies are not making money on Marcellus Shale gas wells, Engelder says the industry knows they’re making long-term investments that will not pay off for eight to ten years because of high up-front costs for drilling and infrastructure.