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.

Pgh Council Endorses Clean Air Act

The air in Pittsburgh may be a little cleaner in the future.

Pittsburgh Council has given preliminary approval to a bill that would require developers to put filters on diesel engines used in projects funded with more than $250,000 in tax revenue.

The bill’s prime sponsor, Councilman Bill Peduto, says that would cut down on particles in diesel exhaust which are linked to asthma, cancer, and other health problems. The legislation has been in the works for about two years, as Peduto sat down with environmental organizations and labor unions to craft a bill that appeased both groups.

Labor raised concerns that the retrofits would be too expensive for small developers, so Peduto helped create a fund to help them buy the filters. There’s also a cap on how much can be spent on retrofits.

Councilman Ricky Burgess says the bill will have little effect on the city’s air quality because it only concerns publicly-funded projects. But Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak says there’s more to it than that.

“Yes, we are retrofitting construction vehicles for public projects, but it’s not like that retrofit is going to come off as soon as that vehicle’s done on this public project,” says Rudiak. “These vehicles, from here on in, are going to be working on private projects across the region.”

Last week, the bill was held an extra seven days so Peduto could address a final concern from the operating engineers’ union about the cost of retrofits. The amended bill cleared its committee unanimously and final passage is expected next Tuesday.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Bald Eagle Rebounds in PA

In 1983 there were 3 bald eagle nests in the Commonwealth. This year the count stands at 203 in 50 of Pennsylvania's counties. State Gaming Control Spokesman Jerry Feaser says people have a greater opportunity today of seeing a bald eagle nest than since the before the Civil War. He says while they're proud of this accomplishment, they will continue monitoring the population "to see when and if we can ever remove the bald eagle from the state's threatened species list." He says they count the nests through Game Control employees and volunteers. Feaser attributes the come back to pollution controls and in 1983 the Commission and a number of other states partnered with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to repopulate the species by bringing in chicks from Canada. Allegheny County only has one nest, while Crawford and Pike Counties both have 19. And while they don't give the specific locations of many nests because they're on private property, Feaser says they are working on an eagle watching guide which is posted on their website, so people can find nests on public lands.

City to Get Help in Financial Management Transition

Pittsburgh's financial oversight board has hired an accountant to review all of the city’s open accounts. The analysis is in preparation for Pittsburgh joining Allegheny County’s computerized fiscal management system.

The Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority says Pittsburgh-based firm Gleason & Associates will work with city government to smooth the financial transition.

The firm will likely close out several inactive or empty accounts, and ICA Executive Director Henry Sciortino says Gleason may even find some extra money in old projects that went under-budget. The accounts range from those opened in the current administration to funds earmarked decades ago.

Sciortino says the firm will also examine both the capital budget and the operating budget to help the city understand its current standing.

But Sciortino says the real goal of the project is to make sure all of Pittsburgh’s finances are ready for the conversion by the end of the summer.

“In that conversion, we want the city to be able to go through all of its accounts, and then match up with the accounts in a way that they fit into the County system,” says Sciortino.

Gleason & Associates was hired in a $35,000 contract that was paid for by the ICA. Sciortino says the financial review will probably take four to six weeks to finish.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Fireworks Cap Regatta

Pittsburghers love their fireworks and the folks at the Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta know it. A 25-minute fireworks display will cap off the Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta tonight at 9:00. The show will launch from four barges moored in the Ohio River just off the Point.

“It’s a ‘pyromusical,’” said Pyrotecnico show designer Ralph Piacquadio, “For me downtown is great [for viewing] Mount Washington is supper, but here at Point State Park, the North Shore, the South Shore, great places to see it, make sure you listen to the music because it does tell a story.”

Pyrotecnico has been working on the show for months. “On the design side it takes about two hours a minute, that just sitting saying OK we’ve got the effects and now we are going to insert them into the audio.” The team also logs hundreds of hours traveling to find the right shells, building the effects and loading the barges. “We usually do that to the end,” said Piacquadio, “someone will call and say, you know what I was thinking about this last night, lets put this in too.” Piacquadio said the show can be tweaked right down to the last minute because the company’s home is just up river in New Castle.

However being so close add different pressures. “We live here, my family, my friends my neighbors are here, we’re going to bring it, there’s no doubt.”

(Photo courtesy Pyrotecnico)

Friday, July 1, 2011

Regatta Taking Over Water, Land, and Air

Pittsburgh is gearing up to host the 34th Three Rivers Regatta - complete with a massive sand sculpture, air acrobatics and boat racing. The festival takes over Point State Park downtown from noon to 9 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and Monday. The event includes a Kids' Zone, Drumline and acrobatics on the main stage. A flight show and skydiving takes place above, including a "sky-yak" jumper plunging 6,000 in a kayak into the Allegheny River (with a parachute). Regatta organizer Michael Dongilli says spectators will be able to see the action from both sides of the river - including water skiers, and "anything that floats" race and the Powerboat Superleague North American Championships. More information is available at threeriversregatta.net. Also, expect portions of the city's rivers to be closed intermittently to boaters Sunday and Monday for the Regatta and fireworks. Specific areas and hours can be found on the Post-Gazette's website.

Study: Wind Turbines Kill Bats

A recent study confirms the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s fears that wind turbines kill a significant amount of bats every year.

Game Commission Wildlife Biologist Tracey Librandi Mumma says the turbines kill more than 10,000 bats and about 1,700 birds each year.

While songbirds are dying by colliding with the windmills, Librandi Mumma says the bats, mostly the high-flying migratory species, are dying in a different way.

“A lot of the bats that we’re finding underneath turbines have no visible lacerations, broken bones, anything like that,” says Librandi Mumma. “They’re actually dying of barrow trauma, which I equate to getting ‘the bends’ when you scuba-dive, when you come up too fast. There’s a pressure difference when the blades are moving on a wind turbine, and that pressure difference is causing the bats’ lungs to explode.”

She says most energy companies with turbines in the state are now voluntarily seeking input from the Game Commission, to better decide where to place them.

Librandi Mumma says it's possible turbines will be equipped to emit high-frequency sounds that would deter bats from coming near them.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

City Council Rethinks Capital Budget

Pittsburgh elected officials say it’s a good time for the city to borrow money, so it can help pay for capital budget projects it can’t afford right now.

Looking for ways the city could buy new police cars, fire trucks, and Public Works vehicles, Councilwoman Theresa Smith called for a post-agenda hearing on the city’s capital budget.

Pittsburgh’s Director of Finance, Scott Kunka, says the city can refinance its debt, issue a bond, or do both, offering several specific options that would inject money into the 2011 capital budget.

City Controller Michael Lamb says he supports borrowing money to help spread out payments on large capital projects.

Several Council Members say the city should completely redo every capital budget line item after borrowing money.

Study Shows Gay, Lesbian, Bi-Sexual Youth Experience Bullying More Often than Peers

A study to be published in the August issue of the American Journal of Public Health surveyed 28 other studies from throughout The US and Canada and found that gay, lesbian and bisexual high school students are more likely to experience sexual abuse, parental physical abuse and bullying from peers than other youth.

The study was authored by professors from The University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health. Mark Friedman, a professor of behavioral and community health sciences says these types of abuse are one of the driving forces behind mental health problems, substance abuse and risky behaviors for gay, lesbian and bisexual youth. The abuse is a result of their self-identifying their sexual orientation.

Friedman said they compared the results of the studies done in the 1990's to studies done in the 2000's expecting that the abuse would have diminished and were surprised to find out that although societal attitudes have changed, the rates of bullying of youth have not.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.

State System Tuition up $436

The Board of Governors of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education voted today to increase in-state full-time tuition rates for new students by 7.5%. The moves come less than 24 hours after the PA House approved a $27.15 Billion budget for 2011-2012 that cut spending for the State System by $90 million or about 18%.

“As we said at our budget hearings in both the House and Senate earlier this year, we will not ask our students to bear the entire burden of the budget cuts we are facing,” said PASSHE Chancellor Dr. John Cavanaugh. “The tuition increase approved by the Board today will fall significantly short of the funding we need to replace what we lost. Above all, we must keep tuition affordable for our students and their families.”

The new annual tuition rate for full-time, resident undergraduate students beginning this fall will be $6,240. The 14 State System schools host nearly 120,000 students. Among the schools are California University of PA, Indiana University of PA, and Slippery Rock University.

PA AFL-CIO: Budget Hurts Workers and Business

Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Rick Bloomingdale calls the state’s soon-to-be-signed 2011-2012 budget short sighted and balanced on the backs of working families. The group is decrying cuts in basic education, higher education, and job training.

“In a time when we are trying to build a world class education system and businesses keep talking about the needed for an educated workforce and a trained workforce, this budget goes exactly the opposite direction,” said Bloomingdale, “This budget doesn't create jobs, it destroys jobs.” The AFL-CIO argues that lawmakers should have looked at increasing the size of the budget from the approved $27.15 billion.

Bloomingdale said the first source of additional revenue should have been the nearly $700 million dollars in surplus income generated in the 2010-2011 fiscal year. Bloomingdale would like to see the loopholes in the corporate net income tax closed and a tax on shale gas extraction enacted as ways to boost the size of the budget.

Along with the cuts in basic and higher education, Bloomingdale points to cuts at the department of Labor and Industry as being detrimental to the state. “A lot of that money went to help companies… who were trying to get a trained workforce and had special needs. L and I would provide them money to get their workforce trained,” said Bloomingdale. The nearly $6 million line item for training was completely removed from the budget.

AFL-CIO officials say they will hold the lawmakers who voted yes on the budget accountable for their actions. “We’re going to be working over the year to make sure the general public understands what government does, I think too often these folks in Harrisburg can make these cuts because most of the tax payers don’t really understand how government impacts them,” said Bloomingdale.

Asphalt Bill Held for Five Months

Pittsburgh Council voted to hold a bill that would require public utilities to “carefully plan” with Pittsburgh’s Public Works Department before excavating roads.

Some Council Members have expressed concerns that utility companies wait until fresh asphalt has been paved to excavate roads when laying pipes or wires. The bill would have utilities excavate just before roads have been repaved.

The 20-week hold will delay the measure until November. Council President Darlene Harris asked for the unusually long hold because she says local utilities are beginning to work more cooperatively with the city.

Councilman Bruce Kraus called the five-month hold a way to “threaten or intimidate” utilities into complying with what the city wants.

Red Cross: Blood Donations Thinning

Regional blood supplies are dipping as summer sets in, causing local blood banks to start offering incentives to potential donors.

Red Cross spokeswoman Marianne Spampinato says the regional chapter of her organization depends heavily on blood drives at colleges and high schools. She says while the national Red Cross gets 17% of its supply from those drives, the Pittsburgh region gets 25% of its supply from educational institution drives.

With those drives nonexistent in the summer, the Red Cross has started giving “ice cream incentives” to attract more donors, says Spampinato. Companies like Dairy Queen and Rita’s Italian Ice are giving donors coupons for free desserts to boost the blood supply.

Spampinato says while the Red Cross usually enjoys an emergency reserve of several days’ worth of blood, the current supply would last about one day.

The Red Cross spokeswoman says if blood supplies were to reach an extreme low, hospitals would probably postpone elective surgeries to maintain supplies for the people who need blood the most -- that is, patients with blood cancers, premature babies, and mothers who just gave birth.

$27.15 B Budget Sent to Corbett

The Pennsylvania state House approved the 2011-2012 budget with a little more than 24 hours to spare. Republicans are praising the spending plan for holding the line on taxes but democrats say the GOP decision to not tax shale gas extraction or use more of the budget surplus made the budget more painful than it needed to be.

“We’ve been saying, we don’t want to take money from other line items, there’s enough pain in the budget you’ve introduced. We want to spend the surplus and we want to use new revenue – Marcellus shale—and other revenues that we’ve introduced bills on to plug these holes,” said Luzerne County Democrat Phyllis Mundy during floor debate.

Democrats had urged the Republicans to spend the $650 million dollar surplus built up over the current fiscal year as income topped projections. Republican House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Adolph said using surplus money would not cover what the commonwealth owes in liabilities. “Fifty-point-two billion dollars in liabilities and we’re here we’re talking about anywhere between two, three, four hundred million dollars in unanticipated revenue. So you can’t compare millions dollars in cash with billions of dollars in liabilities,” said Adolph.

The Republican leadership ultimately brought forward an additional $200 million. The bill passed on a nearly party-line vote, 109-92.

Democratic House Appropriations Committee Chairman Joe Markosek said the budget is full of gimmicks, “I think it's the Houdini budget, you know, as I just stand here we can think of I'm sure a lot of other terms.” Among the “gimmicks” is a requirement that the PA Department of Welfare find $400 million in savings in its budget and the listing of $100 million dollars to be spent in the next 12 months in the 2012-2013 budget.

Funding for education at all levels will be lower than the current year. The State System of Higher Education will see an 18% cut and state-related universities will see a 19% drop. Community college funding will fall 10%. Child welfare and the Department of Health will also see cuts. Spending will increase for state police and state courts.

The Governor is expected to sign the bill tomorrow – it will be the first on-time budget in nine years and the first time in more than four decades that the budget has been smaller than the year before.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Clean Air Act Waits a Little Longer

A bill that would require diesel vehicles in city-funded projects to be fitted with a diesel filter will have to wait another week before a preliminary vote.

Pittsburgh Council voted to hold the “Clean Air Act of 2010” for a week, due to concerns raised by a labor group the day before the preliminary vote was to occur.

The legislation is meant to reduce the levels of fine particulate matter in the city’s air by cutting down on pollution coming from diesel engines working on city-funded developments.

Councilman Bill Peduto says putting enforcement in the hands of the city Controller and making developers (rather than contractors) responsible for compliance only satisfied two of the union’s three qualms.

Peduto says he will work to fix the bill to satisfy all parties by next week.

City CDBG Reform Bills Fail in Committee

A Pittsburgh Council committee has voted down a bill that would have changed the way Council distributes federal Community Development Block Grants.

Instead of divvying the funding evenly among the nine Council Districts, the bills called for each District to receive an amount that reflected its number of CDBG-eligible blocks.

Councilman Bill Peduto says he rejected the legislation because it amounts to less than $1 million of the total $18 million annual package of Pittsburgh’s CDBG funds.

“It’s sort of like that New York card game, where… ‘Watch this hand! Watch this hand! Ignore this one over here.’ Well, the ‘hand over here’ is the one that is supplying major dollars to private developers and others, while we’re debating over how we give $1500 to neighborhood groups and nonprofit organizations that help the poor,” says Peduto.

Councilman Doug Shields says he hasn’t heard any complaint about Pittsburgh’s CDBG process from the federal Department of Housing & Urban Development, the agency that distributes the grants.

Councilman Ricky Burgess authored the bills, and has been the catalyst behind the CDBG debate of the past year. He and Councilman Daniel Lavelle were the only members to vote for the package.

New Exhibit Climbs Stairs at Sen. John Heinz History Center

"SmartSteps", sponsored by the UPMC Health Plan, opened this morning in the stairwell of the History Center to encourage healthy activity while highlighting Pittsburgh history with paintings, facts and artifacts. Themes are innovation, sports, Heinz 57, Rosie the Riveter and the French and Indian War.

Kids from the Allegheny YMCA and from Bethel Park actually ran up the stairs, getting cards punched on every floor so they could earn a free prize: a Heinz pickle pin, which is a marketing tool developed for the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago.

Steeler quarterback Charlie Batch was on hand to encourage the kids. He says his foundation, Best of the Batch, has cooperated before with the UPMC Health Plan to promote exercise.

Pitt Nets EPA Grant for Asthma Study

The University of Pittsburgh has received more than $1 million to study the effects of community stressors on childhood asthma rates, when they're mixed with air pollution.

The Environmental Protection Agency has given out a total of about $8 million to researchers nationwide to study the effects of those stressors on various public health issues.

EPA environmental health scientist Richard Callan says the Pitt study will yield valuable information about factors affecting asthma. He says researchers will gather information about the influence of air pollution, crime, poor nutrition, poverty, and other factors on childhood asthma rates. Then, they'll engage the communities in conversation and action about how they can lower those rates.

Callan says the Pitt team will work in New York City neighborhoods alongside researchers from New York University, Harvard University and other local groups. He says the study’s being done in New York because of the large amount of data available on the neighborhoods there.

Legislation To Cut State Dollars for Pitt, Penn State

A Pennsylvania House panel has approved a measure to cut funding for state-owned and state-related universities
It was a vote down party lines -- Democrats called the proposed funding cuts draconian and Republicans made the case for belt-tightening in hard times.
When it came time to take a vote on the first of four bills to decrease funding for higher education, Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Adolph of Delaware County offered a wry observation:

"21 yays and 14 nays. Despite all that conversation, obviously no one changed their mind."

The proposal would make an 18 percent cut to funds for the 14 state system schools including IUP, Millersville, Slippery Rock, California, Edinboro and Bloomsburg.
The funding cut would be 19 percent for the four state-related universities --, Pitt, Penn State, Temple, and Lincoln.
Democrats say the reductions would force schools to hike their tuition, but Republicans say the General Assembly can’t control tuition rates.
Adolph says universities would be able to keep tuition low since the proposed cuts come in under the Governor’s suggested number.

"A lot of these CFOs of these universities and the board of trustees, even when it was a 50 percent decrease in funding, they were going to try their best to keep tuition as low as possible. It was not going to be a dollar for dollar increase in tuition."

The legislation will likely be considered by the Senate next week.

No Impact Fee for Now

State House Republicans say they will not pursue a Marcellus Shale drilling impact fee or severance tax before the summer recess.
After talk of three different amendments to attach an impact fee to a standing proposal before the House, the Republicans signaled a reversal.
The call to stand down came after Governor Tom Corbett again drew a line in the sand: that he won’t talk impact fee until he gets the final report from his appointed Marcellus Shale Impact Commission led by Lieutenant Governor Jim Cawley.

"I’m going to be supporting the work of my lieutenant governor. I have sent the message back-- if something gets to my desk, it will be vetoed."

Senate President Pro Temp Joe Scarnati introduced a drilling impact fee bill and has said passing a budget would be tough without also passing a fee on drillers. But his top aide acknowledges pushing a fee in the House now would be a poor use of time.
The House Republicans say they’ll revisit the Marcellus Shale issue in the fall – after they get a report from the lieutenant governor. House Democrats have said the proposed amendments only gave the illusion that House Republicans were serious about passing an impact fee, given the Governor’s promise of a veto.

PA Senate OK’s $27.15B Budget

With just two days to go before the budget deadline, the Pennsylvania Senate has passed a $27.15 billion spending plan. The measure now goes back to the House.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jake Corman said cuts contained in the bill are true to Governor Corbett’s campaign promises. “He went to all 67 counties over the last couple years campaigning and said, ‘I am not going to raise taxes. I know there's a big deficit, I know there's a structural deficit, I know we're going to have to cut state spending, but I'm not going to raise taxes, I'm going to cut spending to balance the state budget.’” Corman believes it was on the strength of that promise that Corbett was elected.

Democrats are vowing to not go down without a fight. “This budget will pass, and this agenda will move forward, but after tonight, the people of Pennsylvania will have an opportunity to be heard again. And I believe, like many of us, that their voices will be much, much louder than anybody on my side of the aisle,” said Senator Larry Farnese (D- Philadelphia).

Democrats say the budget cuts could be eased if Republicans would dip into the more than $600 million in tax revenue surplus built up over the current fiscal year.

“I will tell you right now that every poll that exists in this commonwealth of Pennsylvania is that that these are the policies that they don’t want. That this budget is a document that they do not want, that they will not support. But unfortunately it will be forced down their throats,” said Senate Appropriations Democratic Chair Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia). Republicans hold a 112-91 seat advantage in the Lower chamber.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Death for Poplawski

A jury has imposed the death penalty on convicted police killer Richard Poplawski. The 24-year-old shot and killed Pittsburgh officers Paul Sciullo II, Stephen Mayhle and Eric Kelly as they responded to a domestic dispute call in April 2009. It took the jury pulled from Dauphin County just two hours to come to the unanimous decision.

Jurors sentenced Poplawski after hearing tearful testimony from 10 surviving family members. Members of Poplawski's family and former teachers spoke on the shooter’s behalf in an effort to convince the jury that life in prison was the proper sentence. The jury had to decide if the mitigating factors in the shootings tipped the scale toward the life sentence or if the aggravating circumstances rose to the level that the death penalty should be used.

By state law, the verdict and sentence will automatically be appealed.

Pgh Council: PAT Needs More County, State Funding

Pittsburgh Council and the local transit union asked Allegheny County officials to give more funding to the County’s Port Authority yesterday.

In the same resolution, Councilman Doug Shields also urged state officials to stop allowing private transit companies to operate in the county.

Shields says private carriers, such as Lenzner, are raising bus fares and reducing service hours, while at the same time replacing union employees with cheaper workers.

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85 President Pat McMahon says the experiment to use private carriers is “blowing up in the test tube,” and the state legislature is more interested in “union-busting” than serving County residents.

McMahon says the Port Authority cut service by 15% in March, despite $18 million in concessions offered by his union.

Arena Facing Demolition after Council Vote

Pittsburgh Council voted against designating the Civic Arena as a historic structure today.

Council has the final authority to grant historic status, and the decision will likely result in the demolition of the dome.

Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak says she's disappointed at the level of taxpayer money going into the redevelopment plan for the 28-acre property.

"There has been an estimate that looks at even the one-year public subsidies to be around $76 million, and we're going to spend millions of dollars to demolish the arena," says Rudiak. "My concern is about the massive amounts of public subsidies going into this project when we can't even maintain the streets that we have."

Rudiak says the Pittsburgh Penguins’ plan to redevelop the site for retail and residential use may become a failed venture.

Councilman Bruce Kraus says he acknowledges that the redevelopment plan may be flawed right now.

“But I want to get past what is possible on that site, in terms of buildings and business and office, and just talk about the importance of reconnecting Oakland and the Upper Hill with the Lower Hill and Downtown, and the importance of what Oakland is today to the economic health and well-being of Pittsburgh," says Kraus.

Kraus says he'd also like to reconfigure the street grid on the Arena property to better accommodate public transit and green development.

The 6-3 vote denying the arena historic status came after a negative recommendation from the city's Historic Review Commission. Preservationists may still sue to keep the Igloo standing.

Study: Give Flu Vaccine to Poor Areas First

A recent study from the University of Pittsburgh suggests in the case of a flu vaccine shortage, giving vaccines to low-income areas first would best prevent the spread of an epidemic.

Pitt Assistant Professor of Medicine Dr. Bruce Lee was the lead author of the study. Lee says the flu usually spreads faster through poorer communities because those areas are often more densely populated. He adds that vaccine is often limited in epidemic situations like the H1N1 virus, and that poor areas are usually not considered first in those situations.

Lee says in a computer simulation of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, depriving low-income populations of vaccines increased the spread of the flu in all areas, no matter how wealthy -- more so than in any other situation.

Lee says the study shows giving the flu vaccine to poor communities first is not just a moral decision -- it has an impact on every part of the population.

The Pitt professor says in terms of a flu epidemic, all populations are interconnected, so it's important for the flu vaccine to be distributed equitably.

Highmark to Acquire West Penn Allegheny

The governing bodies of Pittsburgh-based health insurance provider Highmark and West Penn Allegheny Health System (WPAHS) have both given unanimous approval to a plan to allow the insurance provider to acquire the hospital system. The still unfinished deal calls for Highmark to pump as much as $475 million into the faltering health system.

The first infusion of cash will come in the form of a $50 million grant from Highmark to WPAHS. The WPAHS board approved an operating budget at the same meeting it approved the deal. “We had a backup budget that we would have passed had the Highmark transaction not gone forward and that budget would have included shutting down West Penn Hospital,” said WPAHS Board Chair David McClenahan. A portion of the grant will be used to shore up other aspects of the system in the short term.

WPAHS executives hoped to find a way to retain the independence of the system and ensure its financial viability but it became clear that was no longer possible. “Highmark was our only option,” said WPAHS CEO Christopher Olivia. Olivia will move over to Highmark as a consultant in the coming weeks. Highmark CEO Kenneth Melani said the viability of each hospital will be evaluated as the new organization moves forward.

West Penn Allegheny Health system has been struggling financially since it was formed out of the ashes of the failed Allegheny Health, Education and Research Foundation (AHERF) in 1999 and both the health system and Highmark have been in a feud with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and its insurance company in recent years. The Announcement of the Acquisition is just the latest step in that process.

“UPMC has attempted, for a little better than ten years, to put our health system out of business,” said McClenahan.

Melani said WPAHS will continue to offer to reach a deal with the UPMC Health Plan for its members to use its hospitals and doctors. UPMC Health Plan has not accepted that offer in the past.

Many Highmark customers have been worried about not having access to UPMC doctors and hospitals in the future and the deal has done nothing to quiet those fears. “As an insurer Highmark seeks to have contracts with all healthcare systems,” said Melani, “If for some reason UPMC continues to say they will not contract with Highmark… then we will have to deal with that through our products and services.”

The deal is pending regulatory approval at the state and federal levels.

UPMC Shares Data with State, Enjoys Federal Subsidies

UPMC has created a real-time electronic reporting system that provides information to Pennsylvania's immunization registry. They are doing this as part of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Meaningful Use Program.

According to the programs page, the program provides incentive payments to professionals, hospitals and critical access hospitals as they adopt or implement use of medical records technology to improve health care for those on Medicare or Medicaid. UPMC would be entitled to federal dollars for the amount of Medicare or Medicaid patients that receive care but this system will be applied to all of their patients.

Frank Caniglia, Chief of the Pennsylvania Statewide Immunization System says there are other systems similarly providing information to the state's system which has been in place since 2000. Eight million people of all ages are currently registered, usually as they receive vaccinations. UPMC is the largest of the systems currently providing electronic data to the state.

He called it a good thing for public health.

Dems Block Funding For Universities To Try To Get Them More

State funding for state-related schools including the University of Pittsburgh could be halted until September.
The bills dictating what the schools get in state money are the rare bills that require a two-thirds majority vote – so Senate and House Democrats were able to keep the measures from passing Monday evening.
The Democrats say they want to get more money for the schools which are being cut by 19%.
But Republican Representative Stan Saylor of York County says this will only hold things up.

"We’re not gonna deal with these until we come back in September now. Because again, we’re not going to wait around and play games. Because we don’t know when they’re going to give us votes. They haven’t said."

Democratic Representative Dan Frankel of Pittsburgh says Republicans left Democrats out of the loop on spending decisions for too long.

So we’re brought in on June 27th to have that conversation. So we’re expected to roll over because they have a date of June 30th to get this bill done? Well if they were concerned about getting the bill – the budget done on time, they should have included the caucus in on the discussions at a much earlier time.

But House Republicans say this won’t delay the passage of a budget – although it might delay state funding for the schools in question -- Penn State, Pitt, Temple, and Lincoln.
.

Tentative Deals With 2 State Workers' Unions

The Corbett administration is emphasizing what the commonwealth will save if the tentative labor contract agreements with Pennsylvania’s two largest public worker unions are finalized.
The deals are with the Pennsylvania chapters of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union.
Kelly Powers Logan is with the Office of Administration, which led contract negotiations. She says the deals represent the lowest pay increases for union workers in the past decade.

"Where we ended up at the end of the day is a contract that really is a very successful contract and fits within the demands of the governor’s budget."

But when you compare the deal with current labor contracts with those unions, Pennsylvania would save about 114 million dollars, but those savings would end in years three and four of the contract, where there would be a net increase in spending of about 278 million dollars.
Current terms set a one-year wage freeze, and a four percent wage increase over the remaining three years left in the contract.
Logan says the remaining 15 public employee unions will likely follow the lead of AFSCME and SEIU and agree on similar contract terms.
Current contracts end on June 30th.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Penalty Phase Ensues in Poplawski Trial

Jurors will decide this week whether Richard Poplawski will receive the death penalty or life in prison without parole for the 2009 murder of three Pittsburgh Police Officers.

The jury will weigh the prosecution’s “aggravating factors” against the defense’s “mitigating factors” when making their decision.

Deputy District Attorney Mark Tranquili says there are three reasons the death penalty is right in this case: first, Poplawski did not stop killing after the first murder; second, the three victims were all policemen; and third, many other people, including neighbors and police officers, were put at risk of death.

Defense attorney Bill Brennan says the three mitigating factors he’s arguing for are not excuses for Poplawski’s crime, but suggest he should receive a life term in prison rather than a death sentence.

Brennan says Poplawski was 21 at the time of the shooting, three years above the age line for applying the death penalty. He says Poplawski also had no prior criminal history, and the shooter had an abusive family relationship, including an “evil” and “racist” grandfather who would regularly threaten the family with guns.

Tranquili has planned for many “victim impact” witnesses to testify about the lingering effects of the crime; Brennan has planned for the gunman’s mother and grandmother to tell the jury about Poplawski's turbulent family history.

Julia Sciullo, the mother of slain Officer Paul Sciullo, was the first to testify for the prosecution. She says Officer Sciullo's death has changed her family life dramatically.

"This wonderful man, this wonderful life is now gone," says Mrs. Sciullo. "We will never have closure with this... This trial is just one of many high mountains we have to climb."

Officer Sciullo's sister, Julia Mullen, was next to speak to the jury. Mullen says Paul was the father figure to her son David, and visited her family "every single night."

"I will never again be the person I was on April 3, 2009," says Mullen.

The death penalty or a life prison term are the only possible sentences for Poplawski.

Shale Panel to Gather at CCAC

Congressman Jason Altmire (PA-04) will gather experts and activists versed in the debate over drilling in the Marcellus shale formation in a forum Tuesday evening in McCandless. This is going to be a community discussion said Altmire, “It’s not to advocate one side over the other, it’s certainly not a political meeting but it is to give everybody the opportunity to have a panel all in the same room, at the same time, answering the same questions so hopefully we can all learn from it.” Altmire hopes the activists on both sides will not disrupt the event.

The forum runs from 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Community College of Allegheny County North Campus.

Each of the seven panel members will be given a chance to make opening remarks, “and then we are going to ask the obvious questions that always come up… the things I always hear in the public, and then we are going to open it up at the end for members of the community to directly ask the panel anything that they want,” said Altmire.

Representatives from the gas industry, the environmental movement, government regulatory agencies and academicians will sit on the panel. According to Altmire, this is the issue he hears about more often than any other issue as he travels around his district.

While the forum is to explore sides of the issue, Altmire has come out in favor of drilling in the past. “If you do it right the fracking process can be done safely without the environmental impacts that some are concerned about, but there does need to be oversight, we do need to make sure corners are not cut and that the process is carried out in an environmental way,” said Altmire. At the same time Altmire says Pennsylvania should not follow the lead of New York where all drilling has been banned pending review of the process.

Mayor Encourages Walking

Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl asked city employees to join him today in a 10,000 step challenge. The CityFit program, which began in 2007, gives employees a pedometer for 12 weeks to track their steps and encourage physical activity and wellness. The mayor was already wearing his meter and had a jump start of 72 steps before heading out with a group of employees on a walk from the City County Building on Grant Street to PNC Firstside Park on First Avenue (0.2 miles away).

Stanley Hoss Crime Victims Look Back

On the same day a jury convicted Richard Poplawski of first-degree murder for fatally shooting three Pittsburgh Police officers, there was a community event in Verona to remember the victims of another notorious criminal who committed his crimes more than 40 years ago. WDUQ’s Alexandria Chaklos was at the event to learn more about the violent life of Stanley B. Hoss.

Listen to the story as it aired on WDUQ 90.5 FM.

Carnegie Library South Side to Close for Renovations

The Carnegie Library South Side branch will close at the end of business on Thursday June 30th for renovations expected to take about a year.

It’s the 11th library in the city to be renovated, according to Suzanne Thinnes, Carnegie Library Communications Manager. It’s one of four with no air conditioning, and it also needs a new heating system. The front entrance will be restored to look more like it did in 1909, when it was one of the first libraries Andrew Carnegie gave to the city.

Library patrons have provided input at several meetings with architects over the past few years, and a fundraiser last month raised $10,000. Thinnes says companies on the South Side have been generous, and various government grants amount to more than $2.5 million.

Community Meeting on School Budget Cuts

The public is invited to a meeting at 5:30 this evening at the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers Building on the South Side: 10 South 19th Street. Pittsburgh School Superintendent Linda Lane will present information about necessary budget cuts, and community members will have a chance to express their priorities.

Carey Harris, Executive Director of A+ Schools, which is hosting the meeting, says Dr. Lane has already had to make difficult decisions because of state budget cuts, which will require further cuts of $100 million a year. Harris says the general fund budget now is about $540 million a year, or $20,000 per student--one of the highest-spending districts in Pennsylvania. A $100 million cut would reduce the average to $16,000 per student, which is still high in the state, so, depending on where cuts are made, Harris believes the district can continue to deliver a quality education.

Harris expects Dr. Lane to present an analysis of where the spending in Pittsburgh exceeds state averages and where cuts might be made without jeopardizing the quality of education. The decisions to be made are probably for the 2011-2012 school year, which the board will be voting on in December.

There will be refreshments to get people through the dinner hour, and child care is provided.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Poplawski Found Guilty

It took a jury just more than three hours of deliberations to find 24-year-old Richard Poplawski guilty in the 2009 killings of three Pittsburgh police officers. The verdict came after a week of testimony where jurors heard gruesome details of the shootings of officers Eric Kelly, Paul Sciullo, and Stephen Mayhle.

Poplawski was found guilty of first-degree murder in all three killings. He was also found guilty of 25 other lesser crimes.

The officers were responding to a 911 call from Poplawski’s mother who said she and her son were arguing in the home they shared. When officers arrived, Poplawski opened fire and held police at bay for hours. The trial now enters the penalty phase in which the jury will hear evidence about Poplawski’s mental state, background and other factors before determining if he will receive the death penalty or life in prison without parole.

The jury was selected from Dauphin County and brought in to hear the case. The jury has been sequestered since being brought to Pittsburgh.

The defense never called a witness but did use its closing arguments to hint that Poplawski’s mother Margret was not involved. The mother has never been charged but was in the home throughout the standoff.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Obama Visits

President Obama came to Pittsburgh on Friday to announce a new initiative to ramp up American manufacturing.

The President toured Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Institute before speaking to a small audience of invited guests about his vision for American manufacturing.

He announced the launch of the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership. This new initiative will bring together the federal government, industries and universities, such as Carnegie Mellon, to invest in and increase the production of emerging technologies.
The president’s plan will invest more than 500 million dollars to build domestic manufacturing capabilities in national security industries, increase energy efficiency in manufacturing and ultimately keep jobs in those fields in the US.

"And the purpose of this partnership is to prove that the United States of America has your back, is going to be supporting you – because that’s the kind of adventurous, pioneering spirit that we need right now," he said.

His visit also attracted several protesters, curious onlookers and Obama fans. They congregated on sidewalks in Lawrenceville in hopes of a glimpse.

Listen to his speech here.

Voter ID Bill Heads to State Senate

House Republicans passed a bill to require photo identification at the polls last night.

A late-night, party-line vote has pushed the legislation to the Senate for consideration.

State Representative Dom Costa says it would cost PennDOT about $10 million to distribute free photo IDs to people who would need them to vote under the measure.

But Costa says fraud isn’t a problem in Pennsylvania elections, and the requirement would present a “tremendous obstacle” to many would-be voters.

The Allegheny County Democrat says he thinks the bill will have a harder time passing the Senate, where he says the Republicans are more moderate.

“I’m hopeful that those moderate Republicans will look at it and say, ‘This is not good for our Commonwealth, and we don’t want to be any part of this,’” says Costa, “and I’m hoping they’re asking the same questions I’m asking. Future cost. Show me the beef. Show me where you’re telling me there’s voter fraud, and especially to the extent where we need to take these extreme measures.”

The bill would have PennDOT give out free photo IDs to people who bring their Social Security card, a non-photo ID, and two “proofs of residency” like bills or tax forms.

Changes Possible for County Transit

Two bills in the state legislature could have deep impacts on the Port Authority of Allegheny County.

House Bill 10 gives Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission sole authority over public transit carriers in Allegheny County. Currently, the Port Authority must approve deals to let private transit companies operate in the county.

Allegheny County Transit Council President Jonathan Robison says if the PUC is given control over county bus lines, the changes won’t turn out well.

“Some private carrier sees a PAT route, and if they, by raising rates and reducing service, can make money, they’ll take over that route instead of the Port Authority,” says Robison.

Robison calls the bill a “union-busting” effort, but sponsoring Representative Mike Turzai says every other county transit system in Pennsylvania works under the PUC.

“This legislation is about transit competition. … Transit competition will promote greater efficiency and provide more options for county residents,” writes Turzai, a Republican from McCandless. “To best serve Allegheny County, we need to end the transit monopoly.”

House Bill 10 passed with support from both parties and has been sent to a Senate subcommittee.

Meanwhile, a Senate bill to change the makeup of the PAT Board got its first consideration Tuesday. That legislation would require the Board to include members from the state legislature, the local transit union, County Council, and the transit council.

Sculpting of Sand Begins at Point

Master sculptors have begun working on 150 tons of compacted sand in Point State Park with the goal of creating a masterpiece in time for the opening of the Three River Regatta a week from Saturday. The sand was trucked in last weekend and crews spent nearly a week pouring it into forms, adding water and compacting into three tight blocks. Those three blocks well be merged into a 14-foot tall 50-foot wide block and carved into a single form. “It is going to be absolutely gorgeous,” said sand sculpturing world champion Thomas Koet, “People who like American and Pittsburgh will love what they see but it will be a total surprise.”

The sculptors are working behind tarps to keep away prying eyes. The sculpture will be unveiled July 2nd. Sandsational Sand Sculpting was hired to do the work. Owner Jill Harris says she hopes her team will be invited back next year and she is already asking for more sand if they return.

President Obama to Visit Pittsburgh, Announce Manufacturing Initiative

President Obama will be in Pittsburgh Friday to discuss American manufacturing.

President Obama is expected to tour Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Institute before announcing the launch of the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership. This new initiative will bring together the federal government, industries and universities to invest in and increase the production of emerging technologies.

Carnegie Mellon will be one of the universities involved as will be locally based Allegheny Technologies. The initiative will be led by Andrew Liveris, the Chairman and President of Dow Chemical and Susan Hockfield, President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This initiative came about a little over two years after the President formed an advisory group - the President's Advisory Council on Science and Technology. Eric Lander was co-chair of the council. He says the US serving as a leader in advanced manufacturing is critically important. "Advancing on manufacturing based on new technologies can provide high quality, good paying jobs for American workers. 2nd, manufacturing and innovation are intimately connected. Keeping manufacturing locally helps facilitate more innovation here in The United States. And third, investing in advanced manufacturing capabilities that use advanced technologies is absolutely vital to maintaining national security," he said.

The president’s plan will invest more than 500 million dollars to build domestic manufacturing capabilities in national security industries, increase energy efficiency in manufacturing processes and ultimately keep jobs in those fields in the US.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Orie Gets Day in Different Court

Pennsylvania's high court says state senator Janie Orie of McCandless should be allowed to argue that a new trial on public corruption charges would constitute double jeopardy.

The state Supreme Court ruled 6-to-0 Thursday that Superior Court should consider Orie's claim that she should not be subject to a second trial on charges tat she misused her public office for campaign purposes.

Orie's sister, Justice Joan Orie Melvin, didn't participate in the decision. The charges allege that Sen. Orie and a third sister conspired to use public assets to support campaigns for both the senator and the judge.

The high court order says the lower Superior Court should consider whether retrial should be barred on grounds that include the trial judge declaring a mistrial without considering less drastic measures. The mistrial was declared after it appeared that fraudulent documents were among those presented to the jury.

State May Have Deal With Union

A tentative contract agreement appears to have been reached with the state's largest government union. The deal would cover 45,000 Pennsylvania state employees. It reportedly calls for an initial wage freeze followed by a series of increases over a four-year period.

The Associated Press confirmed the information through three individuals familiar with the deal. All of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly.

The duration of the wage freeze and the amount of the increases remained unclear

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett had called for a 4% pay cut and other concessions in the negotiations with Council 13 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

217 PPS Nonteaching Staff Cut

The Pittsburgh Public School board has moved to eliminate 217 positions, more than half will come through layoffs and furloughs. Board members voted 8-1 Wednesday night to pass the measure.

The district is facing a growing budget gap that will reach $68 million by the end of next year.

Superintendent Linda Lane says the people being let go range from janitors and clerical employees to administrative staff. impacted workers were informed through face-to-face meetings. Lane says, "This is very, very difficult. We're talking about people's lives here."

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Naming Rights to County Parks, Bridges Could Be Sold

An Allegheny County Councilman wants to give corporations the opportunity to buy naming rights for some county property, a deal he says could yield millions of dollars.

The legislation from Councilman Ed Kress has two parts: first, to order an evaluation of the assets whose naming rights could be sold; and second, to create a “Department of Alternative Revenue” in the county administration to broker the deals.

Kress says those measures would be similar to actions taken by the City of San Diego when they started selling naming rights in 1999. He says since then, San Diego has generated about $20 million in revenue from naming rights.

The at-large Councilman says for example, Pepsi could be the sponsor of Allegheny County’s nine parks.

“The way the agreement probably would work is that they’d be [able] to direct market in all the parks, so only Pepsi products would be sold at the parks,” says Kress. “It’s a win situation for the county because we’re bringing in revenue from another company, another source, but it’s a win for the company that pays the money because they’re going to generate more profit.”

He says he doesn’t think the county would be inundated with too many corporate names, because companies could opt to sponsor the naming of a park or bridge after an individual. He says they might also name the asset for a phrase associated with their company (for example, he says, McDonalds could name the “Golden Arches Bridge”).

The Councilman recently introduced a similar bill to sell naming rights for county bridges.

Kress says the county has a “revenue problem” that he is trying to fix through a voluntary payment system, rather than through raising property taxes.

Montour Bridge Set in Place

Walking and bike riding on the Bethel Branch of the Montour Trail is about to get a bit safer. A 500-ton crane lifted the steel structure of a new bridge into place Wednesday to carry the trail over Clifton Road. Currently trail users have to cross the busy state road at grade. “We have people biking, walking, jogging, walking their dogs, taking their kids out in their strollers so it is a very heavily used section,” said Montour Trail Council Board Member Tom Prezel.

With the steel in place, crews can begin the rest of the work. “Its going to be a concrete deck so they have to put the forms in place, put the concrete in, cure the concrete, there is a curb that has to be put in… We’re currently projecting a September 4th date for an official opening,” said Prezel.

The bridge project came with a price tag of more than a million dollars. The bulk of the funds for the construction came from federal and county grants and the $250,000 in engineering costs was covered mostly by donations from friends and Family of J.R. Taylor for whom the bridge is named.

The 2.7-mile Bethel Branch feeds into the main line of the Montour Trail, which runs from Coraopolis on the Ohio River, trough several south hills communities and ends in Clairton on the Mon River. There are still several gaps along the main line of the Montour Trail. “When the railroad abandon the [line] a lot of these bridges were old bridges and the [PA Public Utility Commission] required that a number of those be taken down,” said Prezel. The Trail Council is still trying to raise funds to close those gaps.

Manufacturer's Association Says Manufacturing is in Peril

President Obama is scheduled to come to Pittsburgh on Friday to speak about the importance of manufacturing to the U.S. Economy. He will tour and speak from Carnegie Mellon University.

David Taylor, the Director of Pennsylvania Manufacturing Association says that while there are 570,000 manufacturing jobs in the Commonwealth, more than the national average, manufacturing is in peril due to the cost of exporting energy, trade deficits with China and federal policies that don't allow manufacturing to grow.

"While President Obama is bound to say some really nice things about what manufacturing does for America he is out of control spending, he has destructive labor policies and he has destructive regulatory priorities really work against the manufacturing sector," he said.

Think Tank Disputes Shale Jobs Numbers

Reports published by the Marcellus Shale Coalition and other pro shale industry groups in April touted the creation of 48,000 new jobs in Pennsylvania thanks to the growing shale industry, now, the left-leaning Keystone Research Group says the number is “vastly overstated.” The jobs were reportedly created between the fourth quarter of 2009 and the first quarter of 2011.

The Keystone Research Center reviewed the numbers and Executive Director Steve Herzenberg found the 48,000 number was the number of “new hires” not the number of “new jobs.” “In every industry there are a lot of new hires and a lot of quits and firings and retirements, which economists call separations, If you want to figure out what the actual job change is you have to look at both the hires and the separations, that gives you the change in jobs,” said Herzenberg.

Herzenberg believes the number is closer to 10,000 new jobs created. “When you are looking at your bank account it would be nice if you could look just at deposits but if you want an accurate picture of what’s happening with your account you have to look at the withdrawals as well,” said Herzenberg.

The Marcellus shale coalition responded by noting that many of the jobs created where in counties with higher than average unemployment and that many of the jobs in the shale industry pay well above the state average. Herzenberg does not dispute those numbers and admits that any new job is a good job in a soft economy. Herzenberg does however dispute the Shale Coalition’s claim that the report was politically timed to impact the debate over taxing the industry.

“The report that was misinterpreted came out in April, the series of press reports… came out in the very end of May, We’re a small think tank and it took us a little while to put together the briefing paper that explains carefully this misinterpretation.” Said Herzenberg.

Voter I-D Bill Could Come Up For Vote Today

State House members are working through amendments to the voter ID bill, which would require voters to show state or federal photo identification at the polls.
Democratic Representatives proposed nearly all of the 100 amendments to the legislation, in order to prolong floor debate.
Babette Josephs, a Philadelphia Democrat says the measure is unnecessary.

"There are severe penalties for this kind of behavior. That's why people don't do it. That's why people dont engage in this kind of behavior. That's why these kinds of requirements are nothing but a barrier."

Republicans say that barrier would keep people from casting illegal ballots. The sponsor, Representative Daryl Metcalfe of Butler County, says it follows a precedent.

"We drafted this legislation specifically to -- to follow along the same parallel lines as the Indiana legislation has progressed -- to require voter ID, photo ID by voters -- which has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. And we want to keep our legislation in line with what's been tested through the Supreme Court.'

In 2006, a similar bill to require voter ID passed the legislature but was vetoed by then-Governor Ed Rendell.
A final House vote on the proposal is expected as early as today.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

NAACP Asks DA to Prosecute in Miles Case

Representatives of several community groups met with Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala today, to ask him if he would prosecute the three Pittsburgh Police Officers involved in the January 12, 2010 beating of 18-year-old Jordan Miles.

NAACP’s national legal counsel Kim Keenan says she asked Zappala repeatedly when he would prosecute the officers.

"Lawyers are very good at saying they 'really can't say,' and the DA was exceptional in that regard," says Keenan. "Despite many questions in many ways, he could not give us a timeline, but he did indicate that he had three people in his office working on it."

Keenan says she will do whatever it takes to keep attention on the case, including holding public hearings and more meetings with Zappala.

Keenan says Zappala told her he would look “fully and fairly” at the evidence of the Miles incident, including grand jury testimony.

The group at the meeting included leaders of the regional, state, and national chapters of the NAACP, and the heads of local groups such as the Black Political Empowerment Project and the Black & White Reunion.

Those groups have been steadily advocating for the prosecution of the three policemen in question since the beating happened, almost 18 months ago. The officers were on paid administrative leave for more than a year after the incident. They were reinstated this May after a federal investigation of the case resulted in no charges.

Zappala had said in the past that he would not take action until the federal investigation had finished.

Tarka Steps Down, Esposito-Visgitis Steps Up

After 43 years with the Pittsburgh Public School District, Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President John Tarka has decided to step down from the post. The move will be official August 31.

“He’s a hard act to follow,” said Union Vice President Nina Esposito-Visgitis. Esposito-Visgitis should know what she is talking about, she will be taking over the presidency when Tarka leaves.

“If it was up to me, John Tarka would never leave,” said Esposito-Visgitis, “He is a valuable leader, he is my role model and he has done so much for he teachers and students of the Pittsburgh Public Schools.”

Tarka began his career as a teacher at Westinghouse High School. He served on the PFT Executive Board for more than thirty years, and he was selected to head the union when longtime PFT President Al Fondy passed away in 2005. He serves as a national AFT Vice President, Executive Vice President of the statewide AFT Pennsylvania, and a Vice President on the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO Executive Council.

Esposito-Visgitis was a Speech-Language Pathologist in the district before moving up in the union. She says she looks forward to continuing her push for more support for those with special needs and will also continue to move the “Empowering Effective Teachers” program forward. At the same time she says she will have to deal with the possibility of furloughs as the district’s enrolment shrinks and budgets are cut.

However Esposito-Visgitis is not just looking to be a carbon copy of John Tarka. “I love member involvement so that will be a big continued push for me,” said Esposito-Visgitis, “I also want to focus more on educating our members about the union movement.” Esposito-Visgitis said many of the younger members have never experienced a strike and have lost sight of what the union movement is all about.

August Wilson Center Moves from Presenting to Producing

At a performance-filled announcement at The August Wilson Center for the Performing Arts, President and CEO Andre Kimo Stone Guess said the center is moving away from a model of presenting to a model of producing.

Instead of emphasizing out-of-town performers, the center will work with local artists and has recently formed dance, theater and music ensembles.

Greer Reed-Jones will lead the dance ensemble, the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra will be directed by Sean Jones and the Theater Ensemble headed by Mark Clayton Southers will perform in the 2011-2012 season. Ensemble members will be under contract and will be paid "a living wage."

Each season will also have a theme, said Guess and the theme for 2011-2012 will be Afrolacchia, focusing on arts from and about African-Americans in Appalachia.

The center will also launch an online literary magazine this fall.

Artists from outside the region will continue to come in and perform.

Sand, Skydivers and Pyrotechnics Part of Regatta

Boats racing at 120 miles-per-hour will share the Allegheny River this Fourth of July weekend with an anything that floats race and skydivers touching down in kayaks. All of the events are part of the Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta running July 2-4 in and around Point State Park.

“The front side of the park, the back side of the park, the Allegheny River step are now all open to us,” said regatta promoter ISM-USA Vice President Michael Dongilli, “The only thing that is cordoned off is the area around the fountain.”

Powerboat Superleague promotions director Sherron Winer says the River steps will be a great place to watch the Formula 3 and Formula 2 Boat races on the 3rd and the 4th. “F2’s [run] 110-MPH, F3 95-100 MPH. Very fast on a very small piece of water,” said Winer. The F2 boats will run Sunday and the F3s will run Monday with test a qualifying runs held in the morning and the final races running later in the day. Racers will be competing for the Powerboat Superleague North American Championship in each class.

Members of the Red Bull Air Force team will be making two jumps over the weekend. “I’m starting this new sport called skyaking,” said team Member Miles Daisher as he pointed to his small one-man kayak, “We are going to free fall this bad boy out of a helicopter and fly it down and come in landing faster than a speeding ticket.”

On Land, 150 tons of sand is being etched into a sculpture which will be on display all weekend in Point State Park and the acrobatic and pyrotechnics group “Circus Orange” will perform three shows on the main stage set up on the city side of the park.

The popular fireworks show launches at 9:25 p.m. July 4th. The 25 minute show is set to music and produced by New Castle based Pyrotecnico.

A full listing of the weekend's events can be found at the Regatta's website.

Feds Look To Boost Economy In Rural Areas in PA

U-S Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan has met with business leaders and agricultural producers in Pennsylvania about ways to boost sales and create jobs.
The trip comes two weeks after President Obama established the White House Rural Council, which is designed to protect agricultural areas and will include the departments of Labor, Interior and Transportation.
Merrigan says the effort will look at ways to curb the recent migration out of rural areas.

"We need to have young people see opportunity in rural America. We want them to raise their families there, start businesses there, continue with the family farm there. And if we want that to happen, we need to do some things differently."

She says the group will focus on stimulating rural economies.....

"They’re going to be focused on rural America and trying to increase economic opportunity there, both on the farm and ranch, but also in rural businesses of all varieties because there are a lot of issues around job training and economic developments."

Merrigan says the council is also looking to boost conservation efforts and education programs in rural areas. The council is expected to meet sometime this summer.

Poplawski Trial Continues

The homicide trial of Richard Poplawski resumed today with more testimony from the Pittsburgh Police. The 24-year-old Stanton Heights man is accused of killing three city policemen and endangering many more.

SWAT Team Leader Steven Mescan says he led an improvised rescue of Officers Eric Kelly and Timothy McManaway, who were lying injured outside Poplawski’s Fairfield Street home. Kelly later died of his wounds.

Mescan also gave a detailed account of the SWAT operations to retrieve the bodies of the other two officers killed that day, Steven Mayhle and Paul Sciullo.

The SWAT officer says his unit surrounded the Poplawski house to make sure nobody could escape the scene. Mescan says both a driver and a pedestrian were seen leaving the area, but police determined they weren’t involved in the incident.

A SWAT team also took Poplawski’s mother into custody when they learned she was trapped in the basement. Mescan says after almost four hours of gunfire, the suspect was brought into custody by the police and treated for a leg wound.

Before the jury appeared, Judge Jeffrey Manning ruled Poplawski’s comments to 9-1-1 operators could be admitted as evidence as long as the prosecution omitted several racial slurs. The defense had wanted those tapes to be excluded completely, while the prosecution had wanted the full statements to be replayed.

The trial is expected to continue with more testimony in the next few days.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Allegheny Council Expected to Approve Bond Sale

Allegheny County Council is to vote tomorrow evening on a proposal to float up to $48million in new bonds. Council Budget Chairman Bill Robinson says this is part of an original $125 million bond sale that was approved by council.....
"It was a bit ambitious, but the interest rates looked very favorable and it was going to save the taxpayers money but once we got out into the bond market, it was obvious there were not enough buyers at our price."

So, County Executive Dan Onorato waited to sell the rest of the bonds until interest rates were lower and has come back to council now for reauthorization. Robinson says the money will be used for capital budget items including street paving and upgrades to the county parks.

The Onorato Adminsitration projects that the sale of the new bonds will add about $3.5 million to the county's annual debt service.

In addition, Robinson says Council tomorrow is to take up a proposal to refinance a current $40 million dollar bond at a lower rate which could save the county up to $1.3 million.
"It's something we've been doing over the last few years. We go out on the market and look for favorable rates. This is another attempt to make sure we're getting the best deal for our money, and refinancing is one way to make sure you're not passing along a lot of debt to future generations."

Robinson expects both proposals to pass.

Redevelopment of a Brownfield Site in McKees Rocks May Come

On Monday afternoon, the North Side Industrial Complex received a million dollars from the Environmental Protection Agency to go towards environmental assessments of brownfields.

This comes after receiving other funds for the redeveloping The P&LE Railroad, the brownfields site in McKees Rocks.

The money will go towards transforming an abandoned industrial site into a new space that can be used for a variety of industries including manufacturing, office space. It would be similar to the projects at Washington's Landing or the South Side Works.

If built to the capacity that they would like for it to be built, it would create more 414 direct jobs and 320 direct construction jobs in a community that is economically depressed. Craig Rippole, President of Trinity Commerce Development who has designed their dream plan for the site sad that this will "bring this property back to productive use," and that it is an ideal project because it addresses both environmental and economic concerns.

The site sits on a flat 52 acres.

There is no timeline for when the project will begin or end. Philip Cynar, a spokesman for the Allegheny Conference said they are still awaiting an unspecified amount of money from the state.

Poplawski Trial Begins

Today is the first day in the trial of Richard Poplawski, who is accused of the April 4, 2009 killing of three Pittsburgh Police Officers: Paul Sciullo, Stephen Mayhle, and Eric Kelly.

In opening arguments this morning, Deputy District Attorney Mark Tranquili said he has plenty of witnesses and exhibits to prove that Poplawksi is guilty. Defense attorney Lisa Middleman said that has yet to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and that there are "physical impossibilities and inconsistencies" with the story Tranquili would have the 12 jurors believe.

The jurors were selected from Dauphin County and brought to Pittsburgh last night due to pretrial publicity. They will be sequestered throughout the trial.

Tranquili says the defendant and his mother Margaret Poplawski were having an argument, so she called 9-1-1 and the officers were dispatched to the scene.

Several of the Poplawskis' Stanton Heights neighbors were called to the stand.

Joanne Devinney testified she saw the accused man holding a rifle at his Fairfield Street home on the morning the three officers were fatally shot; she says she was also able to see the bodies of Mayhle and Sciullo at the entrance to the Poplawskis' home.

Devinney says she also saw the defendant's mother smoking in the driveway, wearing a pink bathrobe, during the incident.

Alfred Lejpras says he looked out his window to see Richard Poplawski shooting the fallen body of one of the officers.

Michelle Ostrowski says she watched Kelly's white vehicle pull up to the scene, where the officer was shot as he was leaving his SUV. She says she could not see the shooter.

Pittsburgh Police Officers Wade Sarver and Timothy McManaway continued the testimony in the afternoon.

McManaway says he saw Kelly struggling on the pavement by his SUV when he arrived on the scene, so he ran to him and dragged him to cover behind the vehicle. McManaway says he then saw a woman in a bathrobe nervously smoking a cigarette in the driveway; he says she refused to take cover with him when he asked.

McManaway also gave emotional testimony as to helping his injured friend. After taking a bullet to the hand from an automatic weapon, McManaway says he did his best to help Kelly stay out of shock.

Both officers say they traded gunfire with the shooter; Sarver from a nearby tree, and McManaway from behind the SUV.

More testimony is scheduled for this evening, as well as throughout this week.

Pennsylvania DREAM Act Introduced

A state representative from Philadelphia is introducing the Pennsylvania DREAM Act that would grant in-state tuition rates to about 800 undocumented students graduating from state high schools each year who meet residency requirements.

Representative Tony Payton, Jr. says the parents of the undocumented high school graduates have worked and paid taxes, contributing to the fabric of Pennsylvania, and the students should not be punished for decisions their parents made. The foundation of the country is immigration, he stresses.

Right now, Payton says the students must pay international tuition rates at Pennsylvania schools—the same as out-of-state tuition at Pitt and IUP, about $10,000 more than in-state—enough to put a college education out of reach for many, according to Pamela Linares of Dream Activist Pennsylvania.

Linares says Pennsylvania would be the 12th state to pass a DREAM act. Federal legislation, which would have affected 65,000 undocumented grads across the country, has not passed.

PA Sen Dems: It's Investing Not Spending

As the budget talks heat up, Democrats in the Pennsylvania Senate are urging a restoration of funding for what they call essential health care programs.
Senators Jay Costa of Allegheny County, John Blake of Lackawanna County, Larry Farnese and Vince Hughes, both from Philadelphia, joined medical professionals from across Pennsylvania calling for using part of the the expected budget surplus to restore funding to Pennsylvania's medical schools, four regional cancer centers and the Life Science Greenhouse (LSG) program. The surplus was $540 million at the end of May and is expected to hit $600 million by the end of the fiscal year, June 30. The Democrats are suggesting using about 50% of the surplus to restore this funding.
Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa says the state can't make reductions now that will cost it in the long run...
"From an economic standpoint, we have to realize that modest investments in our state-related academic medical centers are multiplied several times over when you take into account the private and federal dollars which flow into Pennsylvania as a result of the success of these institutions."
State funding for the Commonwealth Medical College in Scranton was completely eliminated in both Governor Corbett’s and the House Republicans’ budget proposals.

However, Monday the state Senate, by a party line vote approved a resolution that prevents the Democrats' ability to suggest amendments to the budget that would authorize the use of excess revenue from this fiscal year to restore the cuts proposed by the Governor and by House Republicans to education, health care and human services for the next fiscal year ..... “Before a budget is returned to the House, we need bi-partisan support to make common-sense restorations to these programs and services that provide long-term benefits and long-term savings for all Pennsylvanians,” said Senator Blake.

House Voucher Proposal In The Works

There’s new movement on the stalled Republican effort to create a school vouchers program. This time, it’s coming from the House, and not the Senate.

House Republican Jim Christiana is hoping to introduce a bill in the coming weeks. His measure would be much more limited than the Senate vouchers bill: it would provide funding for poor students in failing schools, instead of expanding to a statewide program.

Senate Bill 1, initially introduced by Republican Jeff Piccola and Democrat Anthony Williams, has been in a holding pattern for several months now. It likely won’t see a Senate vote until the fall. The measure creates a vouchers system that gradually grows over four years: in year one, poor students in failing schools are eligible. Year two expands vouchers to poor students in districts with failing schools, and in the third year, all low-income students in the commonwealth are eligible for the vouchers. The amended language makes middle class families eligible for vouchers in the fourth year of the program.

House Republican leaders have been resistant to the program. Last month, Speaker Sam Smith said he’d oppose the measure, in its current form, if it made it to his chamber.

Christiana’s proposal is more limited than the Piccola/Williams bill: it would apply to low-income students in under-performing schools. As his co-sponsorship memo explains, “This Act will create a school voucher that will commence with the 2012-13 school year and will be available to low-income children who (1) attended a low achieving school during the 2011-12 school year or will enroll in kindergarten in a low achieving for the 2012-13 school year; and (2) will reside within the attendance boundary of a low achieving school as of the first day of class. A low achieving school district will be defined as the lowest performing 10% of school districts.”

“I believe that the voucher component, in my opinion, is meant to rescue kids that are trapped in an under-performing district, that are low-income families, and the voucher should help them – and only them,” said Christiana. He pointed out his legislation would still help middle-class families, though, by expanding the Educational Improvement Tax Credit, which provides tax breaks to private companies that spend money on educational scholarship programs. Christiana argued targeting vouchers to poorer families, “frees up more money to help the middle-income families with the EITC. And actually, probably all of the money from the EITC program and the expansion would go to middle-income families.”

Christiana is still a relatively green member of the House, but his bill will likely generate serious consideration: according to the Republican, its co-sponsors include House Majority Leader Mike Turzai.

Natural Gas Extraction: Tax vs. Fee

Taxing natural gas in the Marcellus Shale has been painted as a solution to the state's budget deficit, and as a threat to a growing industry. Meanwhile, a fee on natural gas extraction is gaining traction in Harrisburg. DUQ's Larkin Page-Jacobs reports.

Click here to listen to the story.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Governor Signs Unemployment Bill

Some 45,000 Pennsylvanians will continue to receive 13 weeks of emergency jobless benefits from the federal government. Governor Tom Corbett has signed unemployment compensation reform legislation that was required in order to continue the emergency benefits. The measure also ensures that an estimated 90,000 other unemployed Pennsylvanians will qualify for the extra 13 weeks of benefits. The signing came just hours after the Senate passed the legislation. The House approved it Thursday.
The changes are expected to save the state about $117 million by limiting future increases in the maximum weekly payments. Another change requires individuals to actively seek employment as a condition of receiving benefits.

Friday, June 17, 2011

President To Visit CMU Again

President Barack Obama will be back in Pittsburgh Friday June 24 to speak at Carnegie Mellon University. Mr. Obama visited CMU June 2 of last year and called for removing tax breaks for big oil companies and an end to a reliance on fossil fuels.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney says next week's visit will be to highlight the importance of manufacturing to the U.S. economy......." as well as key steps that government, industry, and universities will take together to create new industries and new jobs. The President will discuss the need to focus on cross-cutting technologies that will enhance the global competitiveness of U.S. manufacturing and speed ideas from the drawing board to the manufacturing floor.”

Benefits Preserved, Unemployment Comp Reform Passed

State government can move quickly, when it wants to.

This morning, the Senate gaveled into session and took care of a few housekeeping notes. The chamber then recessed for a Rules Committee meeting, where, with no debate, the panel approved Senate Bill 1030 on a 14-0 vote. Once the full Senate reconvened, a few lawmakers praised the unemployment compensation reform bill, and the chamber voted unanimously to send it to Governor Corbett’s desk. And just like that, at the last possible moment, lawmakers avoided halting unemployment checks for 45,000 people.

Governor Corbett will sign the measure “as soon as he gets it,” according to his spokesman, Kevin Harley.

In addition to freezing future benefits and requiring people to actively look for work, while receiving benefits, the new law will institute a “work-share” program, which will allow companies to avoid mass layoffs. This is something Democrats and labor leaders have wanted for years. Instead of laying off workers, companies “could reduce the hours for their employees on a voluntary basis, employer and employees, or employer and unions, by 20 percent, and allow the individuals to collect a partial unemployment,” explained Republican sponsor John Gordner. “So that they would not be out in regard to amount of monies, but rather than be laid off, they could continue to work, which is of benefit to the employer and employee.”

The new law is the first overhaul of Pennsylvania’s unemployment compensation system since 1988, and will save an estimated $114 million a year. That still won’t solve Pennsylvania’s long-term problems – the state’s fund has been bankrupt since early 2009, leading to a more than $3 billion loan from Washington, DC – but lawmakers on both sides of the aisle hailed it as a substantial reform.

Protesters Want More Human Services Funding

Local human services advocates rallied outside Governor Tom Corbett’s Pittsburgh office today to protest the House Republican budget proposal.

The House plan sets aside $10.7 billion for the Department of Public Welfare, about $471 million less than Corbett’s proposal. Last year’s DPW budget was $10.6 billion.

Just Harvest Co-Director Tara Marks says Harrisburg leaders should put $500 million from the budget surplus toward the DPW to fund it to Corbett’s proposed level.

Jim Franciscus of the Allegheny County Assistance Office says his department is understaffed and dealing with 22% more paperwork than ever before, so more funding is necessary to counteract a growing need.

Erin Gill of the PA Health Access Network also came out to protest the elimination of the adultBasic health insurance program, which provided coverage to 45,000 Pennsylvanians before it was terminated in February.

“But slashing these services isn’t enough for the Governor,” says Gill. “He’s taking it one step farther: taking dollars set aside in the Tobacco Settlement for health care and using them to start a new state-subsidized loan program for businesses, called Liberty Loans.”

The protesters toted umbrellas in the sunny weather, an allusion to Republican legislators’ idea to leave the $500 million tax surplus in a “rainy day fund.”

Flight 93 Memorial On Schedule

Although the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville, PA will not be totally complete by the tenth anniversary of 9/11, many features are taking shape, according to Keith Newlin, Superintendent of National Parks in Western Pennsylvania. He says the features closest to where the flight ended will be ready, including a memorial wall inscribed with the 40 names of passengers and crew and a long wall flanking the debris field and the remains field.

Newlin says only the grading will be done at the future sites of the Visitors Center and the 40-tree memorial grove.

A "high-profile" visitor is expected at the ribbon cutting scheduled for 12:30 in the afternoon of September 10th, so Newlin recommends people arrive early and be prepared for security screening. He advises visitors to bring their own water.