Monday, March 31, 2008

Project Vote Smart tries to survey Pennsylvania politicians.

Project Vote Smart has sent every primary candidate in Pennsylvania a survey that aims to find out where they stand on issues that could come before them if they are elected. The survey starts with the question, “Are you willing to tell citizens your stance on issues you will likely face if elected?” If they say “yes” there are three pages of questions that follow. One set of questions focuses on state issues another deals with national issues. The questions hit on broad topics such as gun control and abortion but do not talk about specific legislation. Mike Wessler is the spokesperson for Project Vote Smart. He says the number of candidates responding has been dropping over the last 10 years. 2 years ago only 33 percent of Pennsylvania candidates responded. That compares to 48 percent nationally. In 1996 69-percent of Pennsylvania candidates responded. The national number that year was 72 percent. Wessler says the response rate among democrats and republicans is about even but incumbents are less likely to respond than challengers. The candidates have until April 9th to respond.

Study to Look For Drugs, Hormones in Water

The Associated Press investigations into waterway contaminants has spurred Pennsylvania into action. The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is teaming up with the U.S. Geological Survey and University of Pittsburgh public health researcher Conrad Volz to monitor trace amounts of hormones and pharmaceuticals in waterways state-wide, including the Allegheny River.
The 3-year study will examine samples from 27 streams, rivers, and lakes to help determine how these contaminants are finding their way into the water. DEP spokesperson Helen Humphreys says recent technological advances allow them to detect the trace amounts. She says the public doesn't need to panic, as the contamination level is the equivalent of a grain of salt in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. The state already has some of the safest public water, but Humphreys says they want to know more.
She says it's easier to prevent contamination than to clean it, so people should be careful about what they flush or dump down the drain. The study's findings will help the state determine what, if any, new regulations are needed.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Barack Obama Begins State Tour in Oakland

Wildly cheering supporters filled Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall this morning for Barack Obama's first campaign appearance in Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, who endorsed Obama at the event, called him the one person uniquely qualified to lead the country in a new direction.

Sen. Barack Obama told the crowd they're going to have to work very hard to help him win Pennsylvania and then set out policies he advocates: helping people avoid foreclosure, job creation and retention, fair trade, health care for all, clean energy, infrastructure investment, improved education and closing the achievement gap. Obama said his most important task as president would be protecting Americans, and he wouldn't hesitate to strike those who would harm us. He said he not only wants to end the Iraq War, but the mindset that got us into it and says we need to use the power of diplomacy by talking to those with whom we disagree.

Obama says special interest money in politics is the reason America's problems are not being solved, and his campaign, which does not accept donations from political action committees or federal lobbyists, proves his presidency could change the way things are done.

Business Ethics

Running a business these days often means operating globally. But an increasingly globalized economy is creating new ethical quandaries for businesses. DUQ's Katherine Fink has this report on how businesses in Pittsburgh are responding to those new challenges.

Listen to the full-length story here.

Business Ethics

Running a business these days often means operating globally. But an increasingly globalized economy is creating new ethical quandaries for businesses. DUQ's Katherine Fink has this report on how businesses in Pittsburgh are responding to those new challenges.

Listen to the full-length story here.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

President Bush Honors Local Volunteer

On his swing through southwestern Pennsylvania for a private fundraiser, President Bush is bestowing the President's Volunteer Service Award on Lydia Humenycky of North Huntingdon.

Humenycky left her job in advertising in 2005 for a more independent experience in the Peace Corps. She was assigned to serve in Togo in West Africa. She says there was the intial shock of adapting to a new culture, but over time she found her footing and made close, meaningful friendships. She spent two and a half years abroad serving as an adviser to small businesses.

When she returned to Pennsylvania she says she reveled in things like running water, electricity and internet access. Her experience abroad was profiled in a local newspaper and somehow the White House got wind of it. She says she couldn't believe it when the email appeared in her inbox--it's not everyday a person receives an email from the White House. Today she'll greet the President when he arrives and will have a moment to chat with him before he gives her the award. The President's Volunteer Service Award was created in 2002 and has been given to over 400,000 volunteers.

Pittsburgh ranks 4th nationally in tourism

Visit Pittsburgh released it's annual report of tourism and announced Pittsburgh now ranks 4Th in the nation. Pittsburgh passed New York to take the 4Th spot nationally. Joe Mcgrath, President and CEO of Visit Pittsburgh said that 10 million people visited Pittsburgh in 07 bringing in 3 Billion Dollars to the region. Visit Pittsburgh says that even though Pittsburgh does well comparatively with cities of similar size a new larger hotel near the convention center will help bring in larger conventions.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Arena Design Adjustments Announced

There have been some adjustments to the Pittsburgh Penguins' new arena design since approval of the Master Plan in January. Urban Design Associates President Don Carter says a pedestrian connection has been added on the west side, between Fifth and Centre Avenues, at the request of the Planning Commission. A reduction of ten feet in the height of the building will save money and lower the neighborhood profile, and Carter says other revisions were also well received at a public meeting in the Church of the Epiphany on March 17th: more windows on the east side of the arena facing the Hill District, and banners along Centre Avenue.

The revised Project Development Plan will be discussed at a public hearing on April 8th at 2 p.m. before the City Planning Commission, which will give their ruling on April 22nd. Carter says this is the final approval required from the Planning Commission--subsequent approvals will be by the Department of Building Inspection.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Fewer Cars, No Reimbursements for Council Members

In today's Pittsburgh City Council meeting, members approved measures that reduce available take-home cars by half and restructure travel reimbursements, while counting themselves out.
The two bills were introduced by Rev. Ricky Burgess, but Councilman Dan Deasy was not satisfied with the original reimbursements ordinance. It changed the system from a $150 limit to a 750-mile limit with rates adjusted for inflation, which would pay more than $300. Deasy called that a "backdoor raise," and proposed an amendment that excludes elected city officials from any reimbursements. During discussion, members took turns showing off their virtues in not taking any reimbursements yet for this year. Burgess and others also pointed to Deasy's run for a seat in the state House as his motivation behind the amendment. Deasy maintained that it was about leading by example. The bill with Deasy's amendment passed with only one abstention.
Certain City personnel are allowed to take home cars for official use. The Act 47 of 2004 instructed the city to reduce its cars to 29. In 2005, the number was cut from 81 to 41, but has since floated back up to 61. Burgess' other bill mandated the complete reduction. Last week, city solicitor George Specter said a bill passed by Council without orgininating from the Mayor's office would be illegal. Members were still divided on the issue, causing a narrow passage of 5-3-1.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Gang and Drug Violence Targeted

Measures to combat gang violence and thwart drug dealers are just two facets of a new legislative strategy to fight crime in the Commonwealth.
The legislative package comes out of a series of public hearings the House Democratic Policy Committee held across the state on public health and violence prevention.
Democratic State Representative Eddie Pashinski of Luzerne County says his measure would prevent drug dealers from using prepaid cell phones to avoid prosecution.

"This legislation would require anyone purchasing a prepaid cell phone with cash would have to show proper id and fill out forms. The main tool that drug dealers use in continuing this perpetration of drugs throughout our communities is the prepaid cell phone. The reason for that - it's purchased with cash, and there is no trace back to the purchaser."

Mercer County Democratic Representative Mark Longietti's bill would make it a crime to belong to a gang, and allow authorities to seize the assets of convicted gang members.

"PA needs to join 17 other states that have enacted laws to suppress gang violence while taking away their power and by hitting them in the pocketbook, taking away their funding.

Longietti says the money would go to gang membership prevention and community programs.

Cracking Down on Child Molesters

Identifying and prosecuting more child molesters in Pennsylvania is the goal of new legislation introduced in Harrisburg.
If enacted, the so-called Child Rapist and Sexual Predator Detection Act would specifically require health care practitioners to report every case of pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease found in a child under 13 to the state attorney general and county officials.
Pennsylvania already has a mandatory reporting law on the books, but State Representative Tom Yewcic, a Democrat representing parts of Cambria and Somerset Counties, says it's not working well enough.

"Children are showing up on the radar screen who are either pregnant or have STD's, who are being reported by the Department of Health, but there is no accompanying police report or investigation. Child predators and sexual molesters are skating by through the system."

Republican State Senator John Eichelberger of Blair County, who has authored companion legislation in that chamber, says similar provisions enacted in California turned up hundreds of cases of child abuse by adults.

"We're not seeing sexual relations with children among themselves. We're seeing with people that are this age older adults, men particularly, having sex with kids that are 10, 11, 12 years of age. Or younger. And that is very disturbing."

Under the proposed law, health care workers would be required to try to verify the age of a child undergoing treatment through insurance or school records, and make a report on those under 13.
Failure to do so would result in criminal charges.

Pitt Diabetes Institute a National Model

The University of Pittsburgh's Diabetes Institute has developed a chronic care delivery system that will be utilized at a Johnson & Johnson Diabetes Institute in California, as well as by Governor Rendell's Chronic Care Commission.

According to Director Linda Siminerio, the approach emphasizes self-management, because with chronic diseases, most critical decisions are made outside the doctor's office. Traditional health care is based on the acute care model, according to Director of Evaluation, Janice Zgibor, which is to take care of a problem. The chronic care model focuses on prevention or delay of complications associated with diabetes.

Siminerio says the last 20 years have brought many new medications and technologies for managing diabetes, but they're only useful if people can afford them and know how to use them.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Carnegie Museum of Art Seeks Teens

The Carnegie Museum of Art has received a grant of $150,000 from the Fine Foundation to enlist a group of teens to interact with the art, artists and visitors at the 2008 Carnegie International, which opens May 4th and runs until January, 2009. With help from area high schools and community groups, recruitment is already underway, and interested individuals can get information about applying by calling the museum.

The team will manage a special section for teens called 'Ground Zero' on the exhibit's participatory website, staff visitor lounges at the exhibit, plan special events, and learn about the artists and their work, as well as all behind the scene activities.

2nd Rt. 28 test blast goes well

Penn Dot crews closed Rt. 28 between Blawnox and Rt. 910 to perform another test blast on the slope above the road. Penn Dot spokesperson Jim Struzi says the rock gave way and fell safely into the catch zone. Traffic was allowed back through the area about 10 minutes after the detonation. A similar test Monday did not go as planned an traffic was stopped for more than an hour. Struzi says new drill patterns and more explosives were used this time. The plan is to begin weekly blasting next week. Struzi says crews hope to do the blasting at the same time each week to allow motorists to get into a rhythm. the work will continue all summer. The hillside is being cut back to prevent future landslides which have plagued the section of highway for years.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Scott Simon Interview

The host of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday was in Pittsburgh March 17th to deliver a Drue Heinz lecture. DUQ's Charlee Song spoke to Scott Simon at our studios. Listen to the full-length story here.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

$114 Million for Pittsburgh Area Locks and Dams

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh Office today received $114 million for area locks and dams. Jim McCarville, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission says $69.2 million will go towards projects on the lower Monongahela River at Locks 2,3 and 4 at Braddock, Elizabeth and Charleroi. $42.3 million has been designated for emergency repairs at the Emsworth locks and dam. McCarville says there is severe erosion at Emsworth with the potential for failure. He says the the money will be used for a variety of repairs including the replacement of gates and the chains that lift the gates. Another $2.5 million was awarded for a study to determine long-term needs to improve Emsworth, Dashield and Montgomery dams on the Ohio River. McCarville says from 1992 to 2005 the federal government invested only $22.6 million a year in the region's locks and dams and the $114 million for fiscal 2008 is a welcome realization of the need to invest in these structures. But McCarville warned that similar annual amounts will be needed for the next decade or so.

Gates cash comes to Pitt

The University of Pittsburgh is getting the bulk of an $11.4 million dollar grant from the Gates Foundation to do two years worth of research into tuberculosis. While the research will be conducted at several research institutes most of the money will be used to purchase new nuclear medicine scanning equipment that will be installed in a bio safety level 3 facility in Oakland. The equipment will be used to look at how TB attacks the lungs of animals. Researcher Joanne Flynn says she thinks this is the first time this type of equipment will be used in such a facility. While TB is rare in the US it still kills 2 million people each year. Most of the cases are in developing countries where it is hard to get the patients to follow the 6-month course of medication. Flynn says the drugs that are in use today are the same drugs that were used 50-years ago yet researchers do not completely know how they work. She says this will help researchers create and test new medicines.

"Life on Mars"

54 Carnegie International art exhibitions have been mounted in Pittsburgh and none of them have had a title. But curator Douglas Fogle says this year is going to be different. As we continue our look at what goes into the making of the show, DUQ's Mark Nootbaar asked Fogle why he title the show "Life on Mars."

Listen to the full-length story here.

Raging Grannies hold a Knit-in in Oakland

A small group of protesters will gather in front of the Army Recruiting Center in Oakland tonight to knit stump socks for amputees returning from Iraq. The protest comes on the 5th anniversary of the war in Iraq. Organizer Edith Bell says they hope to bring attention to the number of service men and women coming home with physical and mental wounds. She says the site was chosen because the recruiters paint a rose picture of the war to young recruits and they feel the other side of the story needs to be told. The women do not plan to block the entrance to the center or traffic on the sidewalk. Members of the “Raging Grannies” and “Women’s International League for Peace” will be holding similar knit-ins at recruiting centers across the country. The items made will be donated to the local VA hospitals.

Carnegie international: What’s in a Title?

54 Carnegie Internationals have been mounted in Pittsburgh and none of them have had a title. But curator Douglas Fogle says this year is going to be different. As we continue our look at what goes into the making of the show WDUQ’s Mark Nootbaar asked Fogle why he titled the show “Life on Mars.”

List to the interview here.

WDUQ’s Mark Nootbaar will examine a different aspect of the Carnegie International every month through the opening of the show.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Study Supports Cryotherapy As Treatment for Prostate Cancer

Allegheny General Hospital is releasing a study that confirms the long-term efficacy of cryotherapy treatment for prostate cancer. The treatment involves using ultra-thin needles to apply freezing temperatures to tumors, killing them. The treatment has been used since the 1960s, but was refined in the early '90s. Doctors from AGH retooled the treatment by adding the use of ultrasound equipment so they could better see the cancerous regions in the prostate. The study has found the treatment to be as effective as traditional radiation or chemotherapy in low-risk patients, and more effective in medium- to high-risk patients. Dr. Jeff Cohen, the Director of Urology at AGH, says this study will lead to greater use of cryotherapy as a treatment for prostate cancer.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Closing Arguments In Cyril Wecht Trial

After 7 weeks and 44 witnesses, the case was handed over to the jury after closing arguments by first the prosecution, then the defense, and one last opportunity for the government team. Each had a total of 2 hours.
Assistant US Attorney James Wilson first walked the jury through the nuances of the law, explaining that the "scheme to fraud" language in the indictment didn't mean some cartoon Snidely Whiplash villain, but someone with a plan to abuse trust put into them and enrich themselves. He went through what seemed like each testimony, drawing out where the prosecution had met its burden of proof, including the "specific intent" of Dr. Wecht to defraud the residents of the county as well as his private clients. "You don't, in a fit of inattention, produce $790,000 in a calendar year," Wilson said.
Lead defense attorney Jerry McDevitt countered most of the points Wilson raised, including the issue of intent. He said the prosecution talked a lot about everyone but Wecht, it seemed. There is no way to prove intent in other people's action that Wecht wasn't aware of, according to McDevitt. He called the indictments "legal buckshot" and a desperate attempt to take down Dr. Wecht. His team's motion to dismiss the case due to lack of evidence was denied last Friday, but McDevitt tried to prove that again today through pointing out what he called uncorroborated testimony, implying that witnesses were saying whatever the prosecution wanted in exchange for immunity. The defense did not call any witnesses during the trial.
Assistant US Attorney Stephen Stallings used the government's remaining 20 minutes to show documents he said proved that Wecht knew about his private work happening on county time. One included a letter from his office concerning his role as an expert witness, with a handwritten warning from his son against using the Coroner's Office letterhead.
US District Judge Arthur Schwab gave the jury final instructions then sent them to deliberate. They chose to deliberate from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., except Fridays, which they'll take off.

Parents Petition for Broader Sex Ed

An online petition is calling for comprehensive sex education in the Pittsburgh Public School district. The petition, started by parents and supported by several women's health groups, has close to 300 signatures so far. The petition says that "teens aren't receiving the information they need to make healthy and responsible life decisions." The school district's sex ed curriculum is abstinence-only.

Ilene Schwartz says what's taught actually varies from school to school. Schwartz is the Vice President of Development and Communications at Adagio Health, which works with parents and some school districts on comprehensive sex education. She says she would like to see state legislation requiring all school districts to take a more comprehensive approach.

Schwartz, who has a 14-year-old son, says parents should talk with their kids about sex. But she says many parents want schools to supplement what they're teaching at home. Schwartz says parents can always opt out if they're not comfortable with what schools are teaching.

The Pittsburgh School Board last year said a task force would study the issue. No one has been named to the task force yet.

Pennsylvania League of Young Voters Has New Leader

The Pennsylvania League of Young Voters has hired a new Executive Director. Liz Rincon comes to Pittsburgh from Memphis. She says she's been involved in politics since she was eight years old, when she volunteered for Bill Clinton's gubernatorial campaign in Arkansas. Most recently, she was Field Director for the campaign of Congressman Steve Cohen of Tennessee.

She says a turning point for her came in 2004, when she worked for the People for the American Way Foundation on election protection in the Florida panhandle. She says it angered her to see how poor people were being disenfranchised, and that motivated her to pursue voter protection further.

Rincon admits it's a busy time to join a voters' advocacy group. She will arrive in Pittsburgh March 22nd, exactly one month before Pennsylvania's primary election. She says she's used to being thrown into new situations, so she's ready to hit the ground running.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Industry and Environmental Groups Agree: Green Jobs are Good Jobs

The Good Jobs Green Jobs Conference taking place in Pittsburgh March 13 and 14 has an ambitious agenda: to reshape America's economy. The groups involved--including unions, environmental organizations and corporations--have found unusual common ground on the future of the country's workforce. Green industry--everything from construction, to retrofitting older buildings, to manufacturing, to energy production, will and in some cases already is, a boon to the U.S.'s flagging economy. According to Kathleen McGinty, Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, Pennsylvania is leading the way through investment in green businesses and by backing entrepreneurs with environmentally friendly ideas. She thinks this niche will not only provide new jobs, but will boomerang jobs that have been outsourced, back to the U.S.

A number of speakers, including Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Ryba pointed out what a rare political opportunity harnessing green industry could be since it not only boosts employment in a growth industry, but it also benefits the environment.

The conference was convened by the Blue Green Alliance, a partnership between the United Steel Workers and the Sierra Club created through the shared interest of environmentally sound economics. Carl Pope, director of the Sierra Club says the two groups have not always seen eye to eye, but their history makes them comfortable working together. Pope says now it's a matter of getting everyone else on board, including Washington D.C.

Rendell, Obama Campaign Jab Over Importance of Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell is slamming Barack Obama's campaign for a memo downplaying the importance of the Democratic primary election in the Commonwealth.
The memo describes Pennsylvania as (quote) "only one of 10 remaining contests, each important in terms of allocating delegates and ultimately deciding who our nominee will be."
Obama Campaign Manager David Plouffe elaborated on that in a conference call with reporters

"Our campaign will not be defined by Pennsylvania. We will be campaigning in all of the rest of the states. We're going to Indiana very shortly, many of the other states in the next few weeks."

Governor Rendell, speaking to reporters on behalf of the Hillary Clinton campaign, rebuked that statement.

"The Obama campaign's attempt to diminish the importance of the state particularly with six weeks to go and their candidate being one of the best campaigners and politicians that I've ever seen, it makes no sense. As I said, it's a little bit off-putting to all of us.

Rendell says the Democratic Party needs a candidate who can win Pennsylvania - as it will be a crucial swing state in the November.
The Obama campaign says that Rendell also admitted that he thought either Clinton or Obama could win Pennsylvania in November. Obama told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that he is taking the Pennsylvania Primary seriously.

DEP To Host Public Meeting on Wal-Mart's Kilbuck Plan

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection will hold a public meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 18th in the Avonworth High School Auditorium to discuss Wal-Mart's proposed stabilization plan for the Kilbuck Township construction site where a landslide occurred in September, 2006. At that time, some 300,000 cu. yds. of earth closed Ohio River Blvd. for about two weeks.

In September, 2007, Wal-Mart announced it had dropped plans to develop the 75-acre site and committed to stabilizing the area permanently. Earth movement monitors show some portions of the slide area are still moving up to 3/8 of an inch per week.

The stabilization plan includes two walls, significant regrading, and native landscaping, which will return the property to the way it was in the 1850s before Dixmont State Hospital was built. The plan is available at DEP's Southwest Regional Office, 400 Waterfront Drive, Pittsburgh.

Uninsured Pennsylvanians More Likely to Die

Two working-age Pennsylvanians die every day due to a lack of health insurance. That's according to the group Families USA, which is releasing state-by-state reports on how a lack of coverage impacts people's health. Ron Pollack, the organization's Executive Director, says people who lack insurance are more likely to die because they tend not to seek preventive care and are less likely to visit a doctor when they don't feel well. He also says people who lack insurance are also less likely to take medications or take less than prescribed.

Pollack says Families USA has not completed all of the state reports, so no side-by-side comparison is available. But he says Pennsylvania's numbers are comparable to other states his organization has analyzed so far.

National League of Young Voters Names Khari Mosley

32-year-old Khari Mosley of Pittsburgh, who founded the Pennsylvania League of Young Voters in 2004, has been named Field and Political Director for the national organization. In addition to Pennsylvania, the group has affiliates in New Mexico, Wisconsin, California, Florida, Ohio, and Missouri.

Mosley will be responsible for voter registration and all web-based strategies for increasing youth participation in the electoral process--efforts he says are contributing to a record turnout this year, though more should be done to motivate non-college-educated young people to vote.

Mosley describes the League as progressive on issues but non-partisan, willing to work with all parties. There's been no decision as yet on endorsing a presidential candidate.

"Cat Sanctuary" More a "Death Camp"

Law enforcement officials and members of the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals raided Tiger Ranch in Frazer township yesterday, finding more than 600 cats living in deplorable conditions. The PSCPA collected nearly 200 of the cats yesterday, and are still trying today. Lisa Rodgers of the PSCPA says the smell of urine, feces, and cat spray were overpowering. The compound consists of what she says look like small one-story houses where the cats stay. Each contained only one litter box, and Rodgers says she can't say when they might have last been cleaned.
The PSCPA was alerted by neighbors of Tiger Ranch, who flew to Philadelphia with video evidence of dead cats laying around the compound. Rodgers says the cats were not medically cared for, and a PSCPA vet found that many had respiratory diseases.
Rodgers says a cat sanctuary can be a success, but only if it's properly cared for, and the owner of Tiger Ranch may have become overwhelmed by collecting too many cats. The owner is currently in custody, facing more than a dozen animal cruelty charges, with more probably on the way. The PSCPA re-opened a shelter in Clarion to temporarily house the cats.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

High Schoolers Try to Build a Better Robot

Robots built by high school students are battling it out in a competition at the University of Pittsburgh. The enclosed clear plastic box where the robots compete is reminiscent of the television show "BattleBots"--but these robots aren't trying to destroy each other. Instead, they're competing to race around the track as many times as possible. They also get extra points if they can knock off what look like large beach balls perched on a scaffolding overhead. The robots also score by carrying or pushing the balls around the track. The competition's regional director says it's kind of like a combination of NASCAR and soccer.

The FIRST robot competition is also aimed at developing the innovators of the future. The winning team here will go on to compete at a national event in Atlanta. Winners are often offered scholarships.

Pilot Program at Pitt Medical School

The University of Pittsburgh is one of four universities in the nation participating in a pilot program called “Aspiring Docs”, that aims to increase the number of minorities entering the medical field. Paula Davis of Pitt’s School for Health Sciences says currently minorities are underrepresented. Davis says rising costs play a big part withthe average medical school debt more than $100,000. That does not include if the student borrowed for undergraduate studies. The pilot program aims to provide mentors to minority students who show strength in the sciences in an effort to increase the numbers entering the field of medicine.

Fumo to Retire

One of the longest serving, and most controversial, Senators in Pennsylvania's General Assembly has announced he will retire at the end of November.

Urging the legalization of slots casino gambling and devising a plan to toll Interstate 80 are among the most recent accomplishments of Philadelphia Democrat Vince Fumo's 30 years in office.
Major accomplishments, some would argue, but not enough to eclipse the 139-count indictment and a federal corruption trial the Senator faces this fall.
He says that's prompted his retirement - not the heart attack he suffered last week.

The situation I find myself in makes it difficult for my voice to be heard above the constant chatter about my upcoming trial. I am sorry that is the case."

Governor Ed Rendell stood by his longtime ally, and sometimes adversary during the announcement.

"We're all complex people. Nobody's a hundred percent good and nobody's a hundred percent bad. And when you total up the score of someone's career, it's a balancing test. The balance tips dramatically in favor of the great work Vince Fumo's done for the people of Pennsylvania and his district, but most of all for the people who don't have champions."

Rendell credited Fumo with helping to win many Democratic victories in the Republican dominated Senate - including expanding the health insurance program for children(CHIP).

City announces 2008 audit schedule

On Thursday March 13th, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and City Controller Michael Lamb announced the city's audit schedule for 2008. The city charter states the controller is to perform audits of all the cities agencies, trusts, councils, and units of government at least once every four years. There are currently three audits being conducted, with at least five scheduled for this year.
Audits are being conducted on the City of Pittsburgh Police Property Room, the Office of Municipal Investigations, Bureau of Building Inspection, and Emergency Medical Services.

Audits to be conducted throughout the remainder of the year are: Pittsburgh City Council, City of Pittsburgh Employee Worker's Compensation procedures, Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh, Finance Department, and the Allegheny Regional Asset District.

The mayor also requested an audit of the Public Works Department which will be broken up into separated audits because of the size of the department. The Mayor's Office is to be audited in early 2009.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Going "Green" With Borrowed $850 Million

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed the Alternative Energy Investment Act Tuesday, which borrows $850 million to put the state ahead in energy conservation and "green" business development. The Senate passed its version last year, with a plan to borrow only $500 million.
Pittsburgh-area representatives agreed that a large financial commitment is needed to effectively spark cleaner energy resources, provide consumer rebates, and fund research. Opponents to the bill say it will put the state too far in debt, and grants and contracts will be awarded according to connections in the government. Representative Dan Frankel says the state's open records and public process will help prevent that from happening.
The House bill was sent to the Senate for approval, and they will have to come to a compromise if both cannot agree on one of the already passed versions.

Foaming Water in Pittsburgh's Strip District, Downtown

If they weren't distracted enough by the 3-alarm warehouse fire, some residents and business owners in the Strip District found soapy water coming from their taps. That lead to a water advisory for the Strip and Downtown, which remained in effect until around 5 AM.
The polluted water was first reported around 4:30 yesterday afternoon, and the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) believes it's connected with the firefighting efforts at 25th and Smallman Streets earlier in the day. PWSA opened fire hydrants along the Strip to track the contamination's progress and flush the water system. Later, the pollutants spread to downtown, and PWSA shut off the water main and opened more hydrants.
If you didn't know about the advisory and ate or cooked with your tap water, you're probably not in danger. Allegheny County Health Department spokesman Guillermo Cole says the substance was widely diluted once it entered the system, and the chance of illness is slight. None have been reported yet.
Bob Hutton of the PWSA says they're not sure just how the foam got into the water system. PWSA administrators, City of Pittsburgh officials, and Fire Department officials were to meet today to find out what happened.

Patients Get Help to Find Good Doctors

Patients may soon have more tools to help them find the best doctors in Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh Regional Health Initiative has been designated a national Chartered Value Exchange. That means it will have access to Medicare data that helps measure the quality of care. Pittsburgh is one of 14 communities in the country that will have access to that information. Combined with private sector data, it could help patients make better choices. U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt says it's important for that information to be out there to help improve the overall quality of care.

Some data is already available. Medicare and the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council have published information on the quality of hospitals. But this initiative will go down to the physician level, including the success rate of specific procedures like hip and knee replacements.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Will of Council

Pittsburgh City Council has passed a will of council on to the state legislature urging them to pass a law that makes mandatory the reporting of lost or stolen handguns. Council President Doug Shields says that this is important in cutting down the number of guns that make it onto our streets because it prevents people with no criminal record from buying guns legally and then selling them illegally to criminals.

Panel Discussion in the North Side

A panel discussion tonight will focus on the homeless population in the North Side. The discussion is intended to start dialogue on how to deal with the issue. One topic that may come up is the Mexican War Streets Society's attempt to gain historic designation for the former Malta Temple, where the Salvation Army now operates. The Salvation Army wants to re-model the building so it can better handle the homeless population of the North Side. Panel members will include Councilwoman Tonya Payne, and representatives from the Salvation Army.

Pittsburgh's Venture Capital

A recent study of venture capital investments nation wide finds Silicon Valley and the Boston are are still leading the way when it come to venture capital but Pittsburgh is coming on strong. The National Venture Capital Association looked at VC growth from 1997 to 2007 and found a 513% increase in dollars invested and a 267% increase in the number of companies funded. The growth rate was exceeded only by New Mexico. Association President Mark Heesen says he sees more growth in the future. He says the Region has many of the attributes that attract VC including good universities, top investors, a relatively large pool of middle managers, a good airport and a well respected yearly venture capital fair.

Monday, March 10, 2008

"Bodies" Controversy Leads to Legislation

The controversy over "Bodies... the Exhibition" at the Carnegie Science Center has prompted new legislation in Harrisburg. The exhibition features plasticized cadavers with the skin pulled back to reveal the inner workings of the human body. State Representative Mike Fleck of Huntingdon County has proposed a bill modeled after a similar one in California. The bill would give counties the power to permit exhibits of human remains. To get the permit, companies would have to prove that the remains were acquired with the donors' consent.

The Bodies exhibition has been controversial partly because the company behind it, Premier, has acknowledged that it cannot prove that the donors consented. The remains were acquired from China. The Chinese government denies that the remains came from political prisoners.

Another commercial exhibitor called Body Worlds says it has documents that show its donors gave informed consent.

City Hotline to Help Homeowners Avoid Foreclosure

Pittsburgh's 3-1-1 line is now going to help homeowners find the resources they need to keep their homes, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl announced today. Troubled homeowners can call and be directed to agencies that can best help them, mostly based on location.
"There is nothing to be embarrassed about," Ravenstahl said. He says more than half of those facing foreclosure don't talk with their lending company about their problems. Pittsburgh has fared relatively well considering the national situation, but working class neighborhoods are the hardest hit.
Brian Hudson of the Pennsylvania Housing and Finance Association says they offer two different loan programs, designed for two different situations, along with available federal assistance. Residents can also call 1-800-PA-BANKS as another way to find local resources.
The goal is to get homeowners in danger at least pointed in the right direction to get help. "I don't think I'd know where to call I was in danger of foreclosure," Ravenstahl said.

Smoking Ban Compromise Discussed

Last summer the House passed a blanket ban on smoking at almost all indoor public sites-- restaurants, bars and other venues.
But a Senate-passed plan includes a number of exceptions -- for casinos, American Legion halls and other sites. Lawmakers cited financial concerns for those establishments.
Sam Monismith, Board Chair for the Pennsylvania Division of the American Cancer Society, says his group is seeking a comprehensive clean indoor air act, with no exceptions.

"When exceptions are made we create literally two classes of Pennsylvanians - Pennsylvanians who are covered by clean indoor air law, and Pennsylvanians who are at greater risk for developing cancer because of their exposure."

The House-Senate Conference Committee must find a compromise to pass what all say is a priority this session. The panel will hold public hearings today and Thursday.

Meantime, the Governor has said he won't sign a "weak" law, but hasn't laid out specific requirements for the measure he would support.

The Value of Governor Rendell's Endorsement

Pennsylvania's Democratic State Committee has not endorsed a nominee in the presidential contest that's come to the Commonwealth. Top party leaders are backing Hillary Clinton, however, the question remains if that will influence the outcome of the race in Pennsylvania's Primary April 22nd between Senators Clinton and Barack Obama.
Penn State Harrisburg Political Science professor Steve Peterson says the endorsements of Governor Ed Rendell and State Democratic Party leader T.J. Rooney will only be really influential if they translate into action at the community level.

"When you begin to have top operatives saying that they're backing Clinton and so on and you get a sense that Democratic partisans across the state are willing to put in an effort because some of the top leaders are in favor of Clinton then that would be something really positive for her."

Overall, Peterson says despite the hoopla over the candidates campaigning in the Commonwealth this year, the significance of the outcome remains to be seen.

"No one is going to have a majority of delegates before the convention. So Pennsylvania technically isn't going to determine things.

In the meantime the state's Republican Committee has endorsed presumptive nominee John McCain. A fundraiser with Senator McCain is scheduled for March 13th in midstate.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Power Lines Decision Comes as No Surprise

The U.S. Department of Energy has affirmed its decision to designate much of Pennsylvania as national energy corridor. That designation could make it easier for Allegheny Energy to build proposed transmission lines through Washington and Greene counties in Pennsylvania. Still unclear is whether the federal government would be able to use eminent domain in states that reject proposed power line projects.

Opponents to the project in southwestern Pennsylvania say it's not needed and could cause environmental damage. The towers supporting the lines would be up to 160 feet tall. The lines would begin in Pennsylvania and continue into West Virginia and northern Virginia. Allegheny Energy says the region will be at risk of blackouts by 2011 unless the lines are built.

Pennsylvania's Public Utility Commission will hold hearings on the project in Pittsburgh later this month.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

CCAC's Science Center Gets Larger

A new science center at the Community College of Allegheny County may be a little larger than originally planned. CCAC's Board of Trustees has authorized plans for a four-story building off Ridge Avenue. The building originally was going to be just three stories tall. The science center will include new lab space for biology, chemistry, geology and physics students. Spokeswoman Helen Kaiser says the new space is needed at a time that interest in the health sciences is growing. CCAC will seek a $22 million bond issue to help pay for the building. Construction is expected to begin in late 2009.

CCAC's Board has not yet acted on a possible tuition hike. Board members say they want additional budget information before deciding whether to raise tuition by four percent in July.

Flaherty Assesses Homestead Exemptions

In an effort to uncover uncollected revenue, Allegheny County Controller Mark Patrick Flaherty has begun conducting a review of the Office of Property Assessment's Homestead exclusion records to identify ineligible claims for exemption. Flaherty says that discussions with County Council led to legislation that clarifies the controller's authority to locate irregularities in the granting of homestead exemptions. Homestead exemptions are meant only for the primary residence of the property owner. In December 2003, Council and the County Executive approved a change to the Homestead Exclusion Act whereby the first $15,000 in assessed valued would be excluded from county property taxes. Flaherty says it's plausible that his initial review of Homestead Exclusions will result in the discovery of significant back taxes owed to the county. He says violators will first be sent a letter and if they don't respond Council and the Chief Executive can develop the mechanism to collect the back taxes. In addition, the penalty for filing a false applications is a fine up to $2,500. Flaherty estimates there are more than 100,000 properties that now received the Homestead exemption. Flaherty expects to complete the review in a couple of weeks.

Ferlo Promotes Single-Payer Health Care

Two advocates for new health care plans in Pennsylvania appeared in Homewood today. Pennsylvania Health Secretary Calvin Johnson and State Senator Jim Ferlo presented an $87,500 check to Alma Illery Primary Health Care Services. The money will be used to upgrade the facility's equipment.

But although the two officials appeared together today, they are far apart on the issue of health care reform. The Governor's "Cover All Pennsylvanians" proposal would extend health care coverage to more people who lack insurance. Ferlo says the state needs a fundamental overhaul in health care. He supports a single-payer system as he proposed in Senate Bill 300. Ferlo says the Medicare system demonstrates that government-provided health insurance can be cost-effective.

Pittsburgh is on short list for international convention

International Congress and Convention Association Executive Director Martin Sirk was in Pittsburgh for two days this week to finish his assessment of the city and its bid to host the 2011 ICCA convention. Pittsburgh is in the running against Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia and Leipzig, Germany. Sirk says he has been impressed by the city and what it has to offer. He says the convention center and hotels are very nice but every city has those types of amenities. He says to succeed in the convention business today cities have to offer more. He says the organizations wooing conventions have to be top notch and have the ability work closely with clients. He says those groups also need to work closely with amenities and attractions in the region. Sirk says if a city is going to truly thrive in the convention game it needs to think globally and that is what Pittsburgh is doing. He says just by being one of three finalists the city has won. He says he and his staff work closely with the finalists to help them improve their bids and presentations and in doing that it helps the applicants fine-tune their presentations to other organizations.

Fidel Castro's daughter visits Pittsburgh

Nearly a year ago the students at the Ellis school in Shadyside decided to invite the daughter of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro to come speak because they thought her decision to leave Cuba and denounce the regime was interesting. Today Alina Fernandez will go before the student body at a time of change in her birthplace. She was born three years before the revolution and did not know her dad was Fidel Castro until she was 10 years old. Fernandez says it was in her teens that she started to understand that the politics of her father was not what she wanted to support. She says then in 1993 when times were tough in Cuba because support from the Soviet Union had dried up she decided she had to leave. She says she tried to get out many times and was finally successful when she disguised herself and her daughter and French tourists. She says change will be very slow with Raul Castro in power. She thinks there will be some loosening of central economic control and some free markets will be allowed to grow, much like has been seen in China, but she says change will be very slow. She says without much influence from the outside world the youth in Cuba may know that things are not right but they do not have what they need to rise up. Fernandez supports the US embargo even if it is weak and she says she is very much against US immigration policy toward Cuba.

Castro's Daughter Visits Pittsburgh

Nearly a year ago, students at The Ellis School in Shadyside decided to invite the daughter of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro to speak because they thought her decision to leave Cuba and denounce her father was interesting. Today Alina Fernandez will go before the student body at a time of change in her birthplace. DUQ's Mark Noootbaar had a chance to talk with her before her presentation. Listen to the full-length story here.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Talks Continue on Limiting Take-Home Vehicles

Discussions will continue on who in Pittsburgh government is entitled to a take-home vehicle. The Pittsburgh City Council will hold a post-agenda session later this month. Councilman Ricky Burgess has proposed that just seven employees, including the mayor and several department heads, be allowed to take city vehicles home. Today, he says the city's six police zone commanders may need 24-hour access to vehicles as well. Since his bill calls for re-directing the extra vehicles to police anyway, he says adding the commanders to the list might make sense.

That would still be quite a reduction. Fifty-eight employees are now entitled to take home city vehicles. Burgess says he decided to introduce his bill after the city renewed its vehicle maintenance agreement earlier this year. He says he saw that several employees were using the vehicles for personal reasons and not reimbursing the city.

Burgess says he believes his bill would save the city some money, but that's not the point. He says he's trying to instill more fairness and efficiency in the way the government operates. He's also proposing that all vehicles have GPS systems installed so that the city can track where they are at all times. Pittsburgh's Act 47 team has endorsed his proposal.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Group pushes for airline passengers' rights

The consumer watchdog group “Coalition for an Airline Passengers Bill of Rights” came to Pennsylvania this week to drum up support for a passengers' bill of rights in PA. Legislation that would force airlines to offer water, bathrooms and proper climate control to passengers stranded in planes for more then three hours is pending in Harrisburg but has been stalled in committee for months with no sign of being called for a vote. At least eight other states are considering similar legislation but only New York has passed a law. That law is tied up in court as the federal government challenges the state’s right to enforce such legislation. Pennsylvania’s bill goes one step further than most bills, requiring airlines to allow passengers to get off the plane rather than just receive the needed accommodations on board.

Pittsburgh students get free history lesson

For the rest of the year teachers in the Pittsburgh Public School District and any charter schools in the city will be able to take their students to the Senator John Heinz History Center for free. The invitation is only for school organized field trips. The decision affects about 28,300 students in district schools. In recent years the number of Pittsburgh students that have been coming to the History Center has been falling and History Center President Andy Masich says this offer will help lower at least one barrier. He says this is also great way to celebrate the city’s 250th anniversary. Region-wide, the History Center annually draws about 35,000 students on school-sponsored trips but Masich says they cannot waive the $5.00 fee for all the kids and still keep the budget in the black. The district hopes to bring every third and ninth grader to the history center. Those classes are studying subjects that most closely fits with the materials at the history center.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Etch a Sketch Inspires Nanotech Invention

A childhood toy helped inspire a new material that may revolutionize computer storage. University of Pittsburgh professor Jeremy Levy used the Etch a Sketch as a model for the new material, which can switch back and forth from being a conductor of electricity to an insulator. Much like an Etch a Sketch uses a stylus to draw designs, researchers can draw nano-scale wires onto this new material, thus turning on its ability to conduct electricity. Exposing the material to light erases the wires, much like shaking an Etch a Sketch erases the drawing.
Levy says this discovery may one day lead to advances in shrinking the size of computer memory storage. He says researchers have been able to write data at 100 times the density of today's hard disks.
Levy says it's not the first time a childhood toy has inspired his work. In graduate school, he says he worked on something modeled after the Slinky. He says the connection makes sense to him because research is about discovery, which is something children are encouraged to do.

Men Paid More in Pittsburgh, Says Pitt Study

The study, released today from the University Center for Social and Urban Research at the University of Pittsburgh, says women are still collecting less than their both their local male co-workers and their female counterparts nation-wide. Study co-author Sabina Deitrick says even education isn't leveling the field; women with graduate degrees have a greater pay disparity than those without even a high-school degree.
She says one reason could be the "legacy effect" of Pittsburgh's industrial history. Women weren't part of the region's workforce until the economy was restructured following the rapid decline of the steel industry. Dietrick says as a result, seniority and training issues come into play. Other areas with growing economies also have a greater pay equity than the Pittsburgh region.
The study promotes training and hiring women in fields where they're poorly represented, like science and technology, and internal audits so institutions can examine and address their own pay equity issues.

Big Ben Gets Big Contract

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has a contract extension said to be worth $102 million. The eight-year deal includes $36 million in guarantees. The contract is the largest in team history. Roethlisberger says he knew from day one that he wanted to spend his entire career with the Steelers, so he's glad to have the new agreement. He also says getting it done quickly will allow him to focus on next season and on giving back to the community through foundations and other work. The deal was inked late last night, the same day Roethlisberger turned 26 years old.

Pitt Trains Gambling Addiction Counselors

Training classes for gambling addiction counselors are filling up fast. The University of Pittsburgh's School of Social Work is offering the classes in anticipation of the opening of the Majestic Star casino next year. A Pitt study in January warned that the region is ill-prepared for an expected rise in gambling addiction.

One group of 30 trainees began classes in February. Another class in May is already full, and a few spots remain in a third class scheduled to begin in September.

Jody Bechtold is conducting the classes. She says the training covers a wide variety of topics, including how to treat family members and address the financial problems that tend to accompany this type of addiction. She says some treatments are even specific to the type of games involved. For instance, people addicted to games of chance like slots often mistakenly believe that playing with more money or staying on one machine for a long period of time can increase their odds. People who are addicted to games of skill like poker may have unrealistic ideas about their abilities.