By PA Independent Staff
HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania State Capitol is officially decked out for the holidays, with Christmas trees and holiday wreaths adorning the building inside of out.
But the merry end-of-the-year cheer is a reminder that Pennsylvania’s next legislative session is only a few weeks away.
That means discussions are beginning to turn to what issues are getting teed up for next year. That could be some big-ticket topics, like transportation funding and liquor privatization, while the state’s ever-growing pension crisis continues to strap the state and municipal budgets alike.
But issues linger that lawmakers have to address before the New Year begins. That includes the state’s decision on whether to create a health insurance exchange as it preps for the annual budget.
Corbett reflects on past two years, future plans
Gov. Tom Corbett met with reporters on Thursday, conducting rare small-group, sit-down interviews in his office.
Nearly halfway through his first term as Pennsylvania’s governor, Corbett lauds the work the state has done on job creation and keeping his campaign promise of no tax increases. Corbett said the state has gained more than 105,000 private-sector jobs since he took office.
Goals for the future are lofty. Corbett said a transportation funding plan will be announced before the budget, and he’s also pushing for a liquor privatization plan.
Regardless of what plans his administration may come up with, it all comes down the Legislature. And Corbett acknowledges that could mean difficulties.
“Here I can chart a course, but I have 253 people that are going to influence that course. And they aren’t necessarily all the time in agreement with me,” Corbett said.
More immediately, Pennsylvania must decide if it will run a health-insurance exchange required by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or defer the responsibility to the federal government. Budget talks for next year are also under way, and Corbett said that revenues, once again, will be tight.
In one of Pennsylvania’s most financially troubled cities, nearly every tax dollar taken from the pockets of city residents in 2013 will be headed directly to the wallets of past and present city employees.
Meanwhile, taxpayers supporting vital city services face a tax hike of 12 percent, the specter of higher taxes on the horizon and high levels of borrowing by the city as it tries to make ends meet, even as the budget crunch curtails city services.
The city’s 2013 budget proposal calls for “an aggressive approach to current revenues,” but one observer is calling it something else — theft.
“It’s going straight into the pockets of city employees,” said Gary Lewis, a Scranton resident and financial expert who writes a blog about the city’s finances.“To me, that’s the very definition of theft. You are forcibly taking money from me in order to turn around and hand it over to someone else.”
Take a look at the numbers. Scranton expects about $54.8 million in tax revenue during 2013, while employee compensation costs are budgeted to consume more than $51.5 million.
Throw in another $10 million in mandatory debt-service payments and the city is spending every single tax dollar on its employees or its credit cards.
The new legislation session could bring new laws regarding child protection in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal.
The state’s Task Force on Child Protection released a much-awaited report on Tuesday, recommending essentially a re-write of the Child Protective Services Law. That includes redefining what behavior constitutes child abuse, as well as expanding who is required to report suspected child abuse under the law.
Another recommendation is barring schools from entering into confidentiality agreements with educators accused of abuse.
Task force chairman, Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler, said in a statement the report recommends “a transformation” in how the state handles reports of child abuse and the way those crimes are treated.
But Heckler said many of the issues will require additional public hearings before changes are enacted.
“Strengthening these laws must be done as soon as possible, but we should recognize that it cannot be done overnight,” Heckler said.
Report tees up property tax reform once again
Legislative efforts for Pennsylvania property-tax reform next session may build upon past proposals.
Or, the efforts might address some of the biggest cost drivers for local property tax increases.
It all depends on whether lawmakers take cues from a new report , or whether they let it collect dust.
On Thursday, 13 lawmakers on the Select Committee on Property Tax Reform voted to accept its draft report with 13 recommendations, as well as analysis of past property tax proposals.
Some recommendations include:
- Amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to allow home and farm exemption of up to 100 percent of the property value at the discretion of local jurisdictions;
- Examining the exact cost of charter and cyber charter schools, which are funded by school districts;
- Amend the tools taxing jurisdictions have for recouping tax debts;
- Allow taxing jurisdictions more diversified options for revenue-neutral tax shifts.
Last session saw certain reform efforts fail, such as attempts to swap property taxes with other tax increases or provide more local control.
Pennsylvania hopes to cash in on ‘Cyber Monday’
Cyber Monday may have brought shoppers online to grab great deals, but it’s a help to Pennsylvania’s revenues, too.
Beginning this year, Pennsylvania toughened enforcement of a long-standing law requiring businesses with a physical presence in the state to collect sales taxes from online purchases.
That means their customers are going to be charged that 6 percent in extra taxes when they shop online. The businesses will collect and send the tax revenue to the state.
The Department of Revenue estimates Pennsylvania misses out on $225 million in unpaid sales taxes each year. With the new enforcement measures, they hope to collect about $50 million of that total, said Secretary of Revenue Dan Meuser.
Negotiations continue between state colleges, faculty union
This week, the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties announced it would put off any consideration of a strike until the spring semester. APSCUF’s announcement comes shortly after the membership voted in favor of a strike authorization, which would allow negotiators to call a strike if deemed necessary.
Officials said they do not want to interrupt students’ education with the possibility of a strike looming overhead.
Instead, they’ll continue to bargain with the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education throughout December. Both sides say they want to reach a “fair” contract, after nearly two years of disagreements.
Points of conflict between the parties include pay rates for temporary faculty members, health benefits and compensation for online courses.
Now, union negotiators will bring another contract proposal to the state in another round of meetings. The next is scheduled for Dec. 11.