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June 8, 2012 | By | Posted in General News

Week in Review: PA unemployment fix, property tax plans push forward

Lawmaker seek to fix unemployment fund

By Staff Reports | PA Independent
 
HARRISBURG — This week, as Pennsylvania legislators and the governor's office continued to work on budget talks, a number of issues were pushed forward on and off the floor.

 
Looking ahead to next week, there's potential for hot debate over not only budget line items and an agreement on a spending cap, but also a plan to eliminate school property taxes for residents statewide.
 
PA to borrow $4.5B to pay off fed unemployment debt, change eligibility
 
Both chambers this week passed Senate Bill 1310, sponsored by state Sen. John Gordner, R-Columbia.
 
The bond will allow the state's unemployment fund to be solvent by 2019, with the bond paid off the following year. Over the next seven years, the bill is expected to net $2.3 billion savings.
 
To further address the long-term solvency of this safety net, the bill includes changes to eligibility that will save an estimated $276 million annually.
 
State Rep. Stephen Bloom, R-Cumberland, praised the bill for its sweeping reform.
 
“If we ignore this problem, our (unemployment compensation) system will soon be completely exhausted, saddling hardworking taxpayers with an even bigger debt,” said Bloom in a statement.
 
However, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said the plan is not a step in the right direction, and kicks the problem down the road. And, he said, since unemployment costs are shared, employees will see a shift in paying for unemployment compensation.
 
School supporters push for funding as PA lawmakers negotiate
 
This week, demonstrators came to the statehouse from the Upper Darby School District, where the Save UD Arts campaign has rallied against plans to cut music and arts programs to help meet a $13 million budget gap.
 
As lawmakers and the governor’s office negotiate the 2012-13 fiscal budget, public education funding has gone up and down in the General Assembly.
 
State Rep. Nick Micozzie, D-Delaware, along with several other representatives, spoke to the crowd about the education budget cuts. Earlier in the week a budget amendment, supported by Micozzie and state Rep. Margo Davidson, D-Delaware, passed in the House, restoring Accountability Block Grant money to its current level of $100 million. Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget didn't include the grant, and the Senate restored $50 million of that as part of a $500 million increase in the overall budget.
 
Accountability Block Grants help fund kindergarten and pre-kindergarten programs and cushion district budgets. Micozzie said if the grant funding sticks through negotiations, it would restore $725,000 to the Upper Darby districts, which had a $13 million shortfall this year.
 
Also still being debated is proposed funding for distressed schools, which the Senate set at $50 million in its budget proposal. But school supporters are adamant in pushing for more funding.
 
“We’re not going to lose our foundations, and we’re certainly not willing to sever the ties our children make with their teachers,” Save UD Arts parent coordinator Rachel Ruitberg told the crowd.
 
 
State, counties come to human services block grant agreement
 
 
The plan is expected to streamline the distribution of grant money for health services. But some believe the plan will harm the efforts of service providers for the social safety net.
 
Officials aim to roll out the program as soon as July 1.
 
As proposed by Corbett in this year's budget, the block grant program would funnel $754.7 million from seven different welfare programs — including mental health services, behavioral health services and homeless assistance — into one grant. This concept, opponents say, could harm those who are most vulnerable by redirecting funds they need.
 
In addition, the state stands to save $168.4 million with proposed 20 percent cuts to overall grant funding. The administration, legislators and county officials are negotiating the actual amount to be saved, said Cawley.
 
“Families with an autistic child, or a person struggling with an addiction, we need to be there for them,” Cawley said Tuesday during a news conference at the statehouse. “But that harsh reality is coupled with yet another harsh reality, and it is simply this — we can no longer spend money we don’t have. We’re still recovering from this recession.”
 
PSEA sending $21K to Wisconsin as part of recall effort
 
Before Gov. Scott Walker’s historic victory on the Wisconsin recall election, union dues from Pennsylvania public school teachers were part of the funds used to help support his opponent.
 
Pennsylvania State Education Association gave $21,000 worth in-kind contributions on May 31 to political action committee We Are Wisconsin, which was running attack ads against Walker. The group also coordinated on-the-ground voting efforts in the state in support of Walker's Democratic opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
 
In-kind contributions can be anything of value that is not a direct donation of cash.
 
The PSEA did not return requests for comment about the nature of the contribution, but the union published a newsletter in April tying the situation in Wisconsin to Corbett's education policy.
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Property tax elimination to be voted on next week
 
 
The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Jim Cox, R-Berks, aims to achieve the long-discussed goal of eliminating property taxes to fund public schools by increasing sales and personal income taxes, as well as taxing previously untaxed goods and services.
 
The committee is scheduled to vote on the act Monday.
 
But new figures from the state Department of Revenue show a $3.5 billion gap between the estimated $12.5 billion earned by property taxes, and what the new tax structure would raise. In response, Cox said he and bill co-sponsors would consider increasing the personal income tax even further to meet the mark.
 
Cox said eliminating property taxes isn’t about sticking school districts with a shortfall. Revenue neutrality is the goal, he said, though he doubted the $3.5 billion figure.
 
"We’re in agreement the personal income tax is the place we would need to look to fill that void,” Cox said. 
 
House approves Mackenzie parking meter inspection legislation
 
This week the state House passed a bill sponsored by state Rep. Ryan Mackenzie, R-Berks, to turn over parking meter inspections to local municipalities instead of the state Department of Agriculture’s Weights and Measures Division.
 
“This is commonsense legislation, which will help to streamline state government and improve the inspection operations of  PDA,” said Mackenzie in a statement  “This transfer will allow the department to focus on its other inspections and will provide more time for local governments to verify the accuracy of the timing devices in parking meters.”
 
Under the bill, local officials would check meters for accuracy at least once every five years.The state inspects the meters every three years. Only certified parking meter inspectors who’ve undergone a training program outlined by the Department of Agriculture would be permitted to check the meters. 
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