Pattye Benson

Community Matters

Pennsylvania Budget

Penn State #1 . . . But this time it’s not for a good reason

How important are college rankings? How much store do you put in the annual US News & World Report college rankings? Well, you might be interested in this ranking – Penn State, University Park campus is number one on this list, but this time it’s not for a good reason.

The US Department of Education has released on a report on college cost comparisons and Penn State heads the list for the state schools. Penn State is #1 on the list and the only state school with a yearly tuition over $15,000! For comparison purposes, the national average for 4-year state schools is $6,397.

You probably would assume that attending one of our state schools rather than attending a private school or venturing beyond the state’s boundaries would save students thousands of dollars. Does not look like that may any longer be the case for Pennsylvania residents — Penn State University is the most expensive public school in America.

In case you are wondering about the cheapest 4-year public universities – Kansas’s Haskell Indian Nations University has the lowest annual tuition ($403) and Dine College in Arizona is in second place with an annual tuition of $805.

Expecting Good News for Public and Higher Education in House GOP Budget Next Week . . . Welfare Programs Not so Lucky

According to John Micek of the Morning Call, the state House will introduce a $27.3 billion budget plan next week that contains good news for public and higher education but the state’s public welfare programs are not so lucky.

Here are some noteworthy items expected in the House GOP budget unveiling next week:

  • The budget will trim $470 million from public welfare programs. Social service programs aid veterans, abused children, the elderly and the mentally ill. Taking funding from the welfare programs but restoring some of the public and higher education funding is a bit like “robbing Peter to pay Paul”; a reshuffle of the allocations.
  • $43 million to help school districts meet their Social Security payments.
  • Increase state public education funding by $210 million for kindergarten through 12th grade. The budget funding should restore school district funding to the 2008-09 level (pre-stimulus money).
  • $100 million appropriated for ‘Accountability Block Grants’ which school districts use to fund after-school tutoring. (The program was eliminated in Corbett’s proposed budget) This could be good news for T/E school district . . . after-school tutoring (value $85K) was on the budget strategy list. In fact, FLITE has been working on fundraising to keep the program.
  • It is expected that next week’s budget announcement will include restoring some of the funding to the state’s higher education – If you recall Corbett’s proposed budget slashed higher education funding by 50 percent. Apparently, there has been a change of heart in Harrisburg and higher education will see an increase of funding of $380 million in next week’s budget. There is good news expected for Temple, Lincoln, Pitt and Penn State Universities when the budget is unveiled; these four universities will see their funding going up and they should receive 75 percent of their current level.

I am going to be curious to see how the better-than-expected general fund collection surplus plays in to the budget. The fiscal-year information released this week indicates the current surplus at $506 million. In the remaining two months in the state’s fiscal year, the surplus could grow even further – some are suggesting the surplus may grow to nearly $600 million.

How will Harrisburg use the unexpected $500+ million surplus? I would like to see some of this ‘found’ money help restore public education funding cut by Corbett’s proposed budget . . . making education a priority in Pennsylvania. It appears that Corbett and some of the top leadership of his own party is at odds over what to do with the surplus in the current fiscal year. Corbett wants to place the $500 million surplus in reserve and continue with the proposed cuts. However, the majority of the Senate Republicans disagrees and wants at least some of the surplus to restore cuts in the budget proposal, including public education.

“Don’t Read my Lips; Read my Budget” . . . so said Gov. Corbett at today’s Budget Address

Gov. Tom Corbett delivered his budget speech at midday to a joint assembly of the House and Senate, suggesting “Don’t read my lips; read my budget.” For a full text of his speech, click here:

In his opening remarks, Corbett’s presented an overview of his budget including “ . . The substance of this budget is built on four core principles: Fiscal discipline, limited government, free enterprise and reform. . . ” Corbett’s fiscal year 2011-12 budget totals $27.3 billion, but no new taxes.

There has been much discussion concerning the economic woes facing school districts across the state. In his budget address, the Governor supports letting the taxpayers decide . . .

” . . . Now, we all know that there’s an elephant in the room when it comes to education funding: The property tax. Too often we have seen school boards raise property taxes to avoid hard and necessary choices. It’s human nature. When you’re spending someone else’s money it’s easier to say yes than no. I believe any new property tax increases beyond inflation should be put on the ballot. If school boards can’t say no, maybe the taxpayers will. Let’s listen to the taxpayers on this one. . . “

The governor takes on the teacher unions with teacher furlough remarks,

” . . . At the same time we need to give school boards some breathing room. There are too many mandates that tie the hands of local school boards. This administration is committed to curbing these mandates, including one that violates every law of economics: the inability to furlough employees when there isn’t the money to pay them. It puts the entire enterprise of public education at risk. . . “

Specifically, how did the Department of Education fair in Corbett’s budget? A quick review indicates that education will receive an expected major cut in funding. The proposed cuts to education include a 10 percent cut in basic education (K-12), which is a loss of $550 million across the state. The budget also eliminates all $260 million in grants that are being given this year to school districts to invest in learning, including pre-K, full-day kindergarten and class-size reduction in kindergarten through third grade.

In his speech, Corbett asked public school officials to consider pay freezes; calculating that each year of this cost-saving measure would save school districts $400 million. Corbett said that he was returning the state education funding to the pre-stimulus funding level.

Addressing the state workers, unions, pensions and collective bargaining, Corbett’s approach was direct –

” . . . In Pennsylvania, we will be looking for salary roll backs and freezes from state employees as well as asking them to increase their contributions for healthcare benefits. We also need to start the conversation about the necessary repairs to our public retirement system.

I want to be clear about this to our union leaders. Collective bargaining doesn’t mean some ill-defined middle ground. It means finding the spot where things work. In this case it is going to have to work to the good of the taxpayer or it’s not going to work at all. Let’s find that place and meet there. Let’s keep things working. Neither side need lose for the taxpayers to win. We need to act on our financial challenges now, before they act on us. . . “

Although Corbett did not use the word, ‘voucher’ in his budget address, he was specific about his desire for school choice . . .

” . . . Pennsylvania needs to re-think how best to educate our children. We simply can’t work within a broken system. We need to change the whole system. We need a new set of priorities: child, parent, and teacher – and in that order. What we have now in too many places are schools that don’t work. Families are trapped in failing schools, or schools that are a bad fit. We need to develop a system of portable education funding; something a student can take with him or her to the school that best fits their needs. One size does not fit all. But as it now stands, not all get to choose. Let’s give them school choice. . . “

During his budget address, the Governor referred to the ‘Budget Dashboard’ available online. The dashboard is on the state website, is user-friendly and provides an easy access for information of individual state agencies. Here is a link to that reference:

If you are interested, here is a link to the entire budget — all 1,182 pages. If you decide up upload the file, remember this is very large file and suggest patience.

Red-Hot State Voucher Program Clears Initial Hurdle

Teacher unions and school board members must be lining up across the state this morning in opposition to the latest Senate Education Committee vote.

Calling the proposed school voucher bill, an ‘opportunity scholarship’, the committee voted 8-2 yesterday in favor of the proposed legislation. The bill intended to help the state’s poorest children from the lowest-performing schools by providing options of attending other public, private or parochial schools, did not pass the committee without debate. The troubling issues that many of us have discussed, including constitutionality, religious freedom and the cost to public schools were sticking points for two members of the committee.

The Senate Education Committee is composed of six Republicans and four Democrats. Co-sponsoring the proposed legislation is Democratic Sen. Anthony Williams and Senate Education Committee Chair Jeffrey Piccola (R-Dauphin). All six Republicans supported the bill, as did two Democrats, Williams and Sen. Andy Dinniman. If you recall Dinniman had some suggested amendments to the bill, including testing and accountability from the non-public schools. The opposing school voucher bill members of the committee were Democrats Jim Ferlo and Daylin Leach.

Leach debated the proposed legislation on the grounds that the bill is not constitutional. Ferlo and Leach are concerned that the voucher system could erode public schools whereas the others feel that the legislation actually offers a lifeline to those children trapped in the low-performing schools. The opposing sides present two distinctly different ways of looking at the same situation. Piccola suggests that Leach’s argument that the school voucher legislation is unconstitutional is an erroneous interpretation of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The chair of the Senate Education Committee also dismissed the argument that the bill is in conflict with the state constitution in regards to support of religious schools with public money.

With all the questions swirling around this legislation, why did the Senate Education Committee seemingly just push it along through the system? Usually, I would be complaining about the slowness of government process, but it is amazing the way this school voucher bill is bulldozing its way through Harrisburg.

Aside from the many questions, concerns and debates swirling around this voucher bill, why don’t we hear much about the cost of this ‘opportunity scholarship’? Gov. Corbett swept into the Governor’s office under the umbrella of austerity and budget constraints, so can someone please explain to me how the estimated $860 million in taxpayer costs by the end of the third-year phase of the voucher program, meets that mission? And the $860 million does not take in to consideration the dollars the bill will siphon from the public schools.

Help me understand . . . what am I missing?

Latest Interesting News from Harrisburg . . . Proposed Moratorium on 1.7% Raise, Rendell’s $1 Billion Spending Proposal & Carol Aichele on Corbett’s Transition Team

Here’s some interesting news from Harrisburg over the last couple of days.

If you recall last week, there was news that newly elected and returning legislators will get a 1.7% cost-of-living pay raise starting December 1, when the new Legislature opens for business, even though they won’t be sworn in until January. Many elections won by candidates based on fiscal conservatism, amid high unemployment numbers and screams to stop the spending, a pay raise discussion at this time was causing quite a stir by tax-payers.

Yesterday, Auditor General Jack Wagner called for a moratorium on the scheduled 1.7% cost of living adjustment for public officials. He is asking that this be the first action of the new General Assembly in January – putting a moratorium on the 2011 increase. He further states that the moratorium would save the state $3 million in 2011 and save $12 million over the course of the next 4 years. Hope that our local officials will support the Auditor General on the moratorium. Every little bit helps and this is the right signal to send to Pennsylvanians!

Second bit of interesting news from Harrisburg. Governor-elect Corbett has put together a transition group of more than 400 business leaders, conservative activists (including 2 Tea Party people), veterans of past Republican administrations, legislators and is said to have included even a few Democrats. The members will serve on 17 transition committees, which will examine 25 departments and agencies in state government. They will help Corbett choose his Cabinet members. Why is this interesting to Community Matters? One of Tredyffrin’s own was named to the transition team.

Malvern resident and Chester County Commissioner Carol Aichele was named as the co-chair of Corbett’s ‘Local Government Committee’ and also as member of the Commonwealth Committee that will look at the Office of Administration and Department of General Services. Some suggest that by serving on the transition team, members may have an inside track to Cabinet positions. So, next question – wonder if the next step will have Carol heading to Harrisburg as a Cabinet member?

The third recent item from Harrisburg that caught by eye has to do with Governor Rendell. Apparently Rendell is planning to issue an additional $1 billion in bonded debt before leaving office! If Rendell pulls this off, it will be history making as the largest lame duck spending proposal in Pennsylvania’s history. If approved, the $1 billion new debt will actually cost the state’s taxpayers more than $1.6 billion over the next 20 years in the form of annual debt service payments of $82 million.

However, this proposal would require the approval of both the governor and either the Auditor General (Jack Wagner) or the State Treasurer (Rob McCord). Based on Wagner’s statement about fiscal responsibility and the moratorium on the 1.7% cost-of-living increase for state officials, it is no surprise that he does not support Rendell’s proposal. Treasurer McCord is the tie-breaking vote. However, before he makes a decision McCord is asking the advice of Governor-elect Corbett.

The state is facing a $4 billion+ debit next year, so this new proposal would challenge the state further, to more than $9 million. As a historic reference point, in June 2002, the state held $6.1 billion in debt, which has since increased to $8.4 billion, a 39% increase. For the record, the new debt would only cover projects which are already in progress or that the state had contractually agreed to complete. It is possible that if funding were not provided for the contracted projects, developers could bring lawsuits against the state for breach of contract.

I decided to find out which projects would be funded with the proposed $1 billion in new debt. I was curious if the planned Paoli Transportation Center was on the list. Looking at the following list, I don’t see anything that looks like it could include Paoli’s transit center – I’m guessing that it is too soon in the planning and development process for Paoli Transportation Center to be a RACP (Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program) project, correct? If you are interested, here’s the entire list of projects that would be included in the proposed $1 billion in new debt:

  • $400M public improvement projects (things like new state prisons, flood protection projects, high hazard dam repairs, renovations of state park facilities, renovations to military facilities and veterans homes, renovations to higher education facilities.
  • $200M in bridge repair projects for structurally deficient bridges across the state.
  • $155M of the proposed $1B is for Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) projects. Those RACP projects are for previously approved projects that have gone through the application and contracting process already and are for RACP projects currently under construction.
  • $114M in funding for transportation assistance projects to the local transportation agencies for upgrades and repairs to mass transit, rail freight projects and aviation projects.
  • $76M for Pennvest grants and loans for repairs and renovations of local water and sewer infrastructure.
  • $30M for Growing Greener II projects for environmental reclamation and preservation projects.
  • $25M for Pennworks grants and loans for repairs and renovations to water supply and wastewater treatment projects at the local level.

State Representative Paul Drucker Supports Legislative Reform in Harrisburg

Over the holiday weekend, Pennsylvania State Representative Paul Drucker made a foray in to the world of local journalism. Coming on the heels of a statewide grand jury report which detailed reform proposals in the Commonwealth, was an article by Rep. Drucker discussing legislative reform policy which appeared in the May 30th edition of the Daily Local newspaper. (see complete article below).

I completely support Rep. Drucker’s appeal to terminate or at least drastically reduce taxpayer-funded political caucuses. As a start, I would appreciate the imposing of tougher ethics practices and the halt of all payments and benefits to staffers on leave to campaigns and ban compensatory time. If lasting reform is to be recognized in the Commonwealth, the polarization of party politics in Harrisburg needs to end.

Several months ago in Community Matters, I wrote about our state representatives usage of per diem (Pennsylvania legislators can use tax-free per diems for home purchase . . . what about taxability issues for fraud issues?)amounting to $155+/day and its ‘use’ considered a ‘legal perk’ of the job. Some Pennsylvania state legislators are using tax-free per diems as a means of financing real estate purchases. Annually, Pennsylvania taxpayers finance approximately $2.7 million in reimbursed per diems for our elected officials. Previously, I have voiced my concern to Rep Drucker in regards to what I view as misuse of per diems by some of our legislators (although seemingly legal); I am pleased to read that Rep. Drucker supports reform in this area. I would like to see the per diem payments to lawmakers stopped, or at least tied to actual expenses. Why should the taxpayers finance tax-free per diems for home purchases by our legislators?

The inherent problem is that any changes in Harrisburg require legislative approval and I’m betting that the legislature is in no rush to address these reforms. It is good to know that our own state representative supports change; and is willing to take a stand on behalf of Pennsylvania taxpayers.

Everybody Knows Reforms Are Needed

By PAUL DRUCKER, Guest Columnist

It is a sad day when it takes a grand jury to point out what the rest of us already know — that the state Legislature is in serious need of reform. In case you missed it, the grand jury that has been looking at the Bonusgate scandal for the past two years issued a report this week suggesting some badly needed changes to the way business is done in Harrisburg.

There are many of us who have been saying this for years. In fact, the need to make state government more responsive — and more deserving of the public’s trust — was one of the main reasons I decided to run for the state Legislature. I hope the grand jury recommendations are a wake-up call for those in the Legislature who want to keep things as they are. I personally think that when an impartial group of Pennsylvania citizens speaks about an issue this important, we should listen.

As outlined in a story printed in the Daily Local News this week, there are a number of recommendations made by the grand jury that I believe should be implemented, in order to restore public faith in state government and ensure its efficient functioning. Among these suggestions are:

Reducing the number of state employees. The average number of employees per state legislator is nine employees. I agree that this number is too high. I currently employ three full-time staff members for two offices, and one staff member who only works one day per week. Despite this, in 2009 my office was in the top 15 of constituents served out of all Democratic state representatives.

Fixing the budget process. The state budget process, as we all know, is broken. The lack of line-item control by the rank and file is frustrating and non-productive. The lack of communication between the two caucuses during budget negotiations sets the stage for budget battles and gridlock. As the grand jury recommends, I believe taxpayer-funded political caucuses should either be terminated, or modified drastically to help reduce paralyzing partisan politics.

Reforming discretionary accounts. The problem with these accounts is not the projects that are funded as much as the secretive process. I believe discretionary grant-making should be publicly disclosed, as Congress has done with appropriations earmarks.

The fact that there are separate, taxpayer-funded human resources, information technology and print shops for the Democratic and Republican caucuses is a waste of taxpayer dollars. State legislators’ staff should be employed by the state — not a political caucus. Salaries and job descriptions and all personnel matters should be handled by one state non-partisan office, as should IT support and print and copy needs.

The outdated practice of blanket per-diem payments needs to be modified. It is certainly fair to reimburse legislators when they are required to be in Harrisburg, away from home. I do accept per diem payments when I am required to be in Harrisburg, but I believe I have been prudent and have not abused the system. In addition, I do not use a state car, I do not accept reimbursement for mileage to attend district events (which would amount to a large sum of taxpayer dollars), my staff salary total is in the lower end of all representatives, and my staff has not received any raise in salary since my term began.

In July 2009, I stood with a bipartisan group of legislators and introduced a package of reforms. It included legislation that would require state representatives to pay a percentage of their salary toward their health care costs, redistricting legislation, and a ban on bonuses for all state employees. It also included legislation to create a searchable Web site to track all state legislative expenses over $1,000, and restrict the awarding of contracts that may result in public officials’ financial gain, including the financial gain of family members. These bills are now awaiting action by committees. They are all good ideas, and they need to be enacted into law, but it is unlikely that they will move unless all the members of the General Assembly feel more pressure for reform.

This is why the grand jury report this week is so important, and why we should be thanking them for their work — not dismissing them. Legislative reform must be one of the top priorities in Harrisburg, because important duties, like passing a responsible budget our constituents deserve — cannot be done efficiently until the house has been reformed.

For my part, I will continue to work toward change. I will press my colleagues to act on the package of reforms we introduced last year, and I will support legislation that improves the way Harrisburg works.

(Paul Drucker, of Wayne, represents the 157th Legislative District in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.)

Roulette & Blackjack Needed to Resolve State Budget

When I decided to begin writing Community Matters, I assumed it would be issues relating to Tredyffrin Township. But I now recognize that exploring how other areas are handling similar situations makes for an interesting comparison. Governor Rendell’s notion for solving some of the budget issues at the state level with an expansion of the table-games bill caught my attention. Somewhere in the dark recess of my brain, I think someone told me that Tredyffrin’s past included ‘betting’ places, and I recall one was located where Barnes & Noble now stands; this was also before there was the Valley Forge Music Fair but I believe the betting window was at that general location. Am I dreaming this? If Bill DeHaven is reading this, perhaps he could weigh in . . . I’m thinking that this was back in the day when he was working in Tredyffrin as a local cop. Anyway, this is how I move from Tredyffrin’s community to my interest in using roulette and blackjack to help the state budget problems.

The clock is ticking on the state budget. Although Governor Rendell signed the budget in October there remains an unresolved issue of the table-games bill. This table-games bill is estimated to be worth $250 Million in license fee and tax revenues to the state; the governor believes that the passage of the bill is necessary to keep the government running. The tables-games bill would permit blackjack and roulette games at slots parlors. Apparently the House and the Senate can not agree on whether to add another resort-casino license to the 14 slots licenses already authorized. There is also debate on how to distribute the gambling proceeds in Philadelphia. Part of this problem stems from Mayor Nutter’s unwillingness to give up the city’s control on the distribution of gambling proceeds. Mayor Nutter is absolute that gambling proceeds generated in Philadelphia should remain in Philadelphia.

If the table-games bill is not passed by January 8, there is a good possibility that 1,000 state employees will lose their jobs. During 2009, 800 state government jobs were cut as a result of the budget crisis and additionally 1,800 open state jobs went unfilled.

Another sad reality to the current state budget situation is that there is once again talk of closing state parks, the State Museum and decreasing discretionary grants. Many nonprofits (particularly historic preservation) are finding themselves in a precarious situation due to our nation’s economic downturn, so the idea of losing state grant opportunities is cause for concern. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission laid off 85 employees last month which represented approximately one-third of their staff. They received the highest percent employee layoffs of any agency as part of the overall state employee downsizing. It is unclear how the Historic Commission would function if further cuts are imposed. As a member of the Tredyffrin’s Historic and Architectural Review Board (HARB), our board and all state HARBs and Historic Commissions rely heavily on the expertise and advice from the Historic Commission.

I am reaching out to our State House Rep Paul Drucker for his comments on the table-game bill — where do you stand?

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