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22 News & Views from State Senator John Blake

Final Budget Delivers Significant Education Funding for Local Districts

WBRE Budget Interview

Prior to the final budget agreement, I sat down with Eric Deabill from WBRE to discuss ongoing budget negotiations and our regional priorities. Click here to view the story.

I applaud the bipartisan work to finalize and pass the $31.5 billion 2016-17 state budget and all of the accompanying revenue bills needed to balance the budget last week.

It was critically important that the legislature and the Wolf administration work together on this budget to avoid a repeat of the pain inflicted by last year’s budget impasse on our schools, our human service providers and our nonprofit community. This is a responsible spending plan that makes significant state investment in all levels of education and begins to replenish state programs and services that had fallen victim to drastic cuts under the prior administration.”

The 2016-17 state budget includes an additional $200 million in basic education funding and an additional $4.3 million for Lackawanna County schools alone The completed budget also includes increases in essential early childhood education, special education, rape crisis services, domestic violence assistance, county child welfare assistance and support for state veteran’s homes and The Commonwealth Medical College.

Not unlike many other K-12 public schools across the Commonwealth, our districts locally were in grave danger of closing their doors during last year’s impasse so the additional $4.3 million investment in Lackawanna County schools will relieve significant financial stress on our districts and also on our local taxpayers.

As a founding member of the Pennsylvania Military Community Enhancement Commission (PMCEC), it is important to note the significant $798,000 investment under the Base Realignment and Closure line item at the PA Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED).

Tobyhanna Army DepotTobyhanna Army Depot is the largest industrial employer and arguably the largest economic driver in northeastern Pennsylvania – with annual economic impact of $3 billion. The investment in this year’s budget will ensure that we can continue to work to protect and enhance the military value of our defense installations at Tobyhanna and across Pennsylvania.

The revenue bill, as well as other bills necessary to implement the budget, were sent to the Governor last week after a report from a joint Senate and House Conference Committee and legislative approval in both chambers of the General Assembly.

While I find the revenue package inequitable in the distribution of the burden – that is, it is more burdensome on working class and lower income Pennsylvanians than it is on business or higher income consumers – it does balance this year’s budget and importantly, 60% of the package is recurring revenue, which will assure a better fiscal climate moving into the next fiscal year while sending a signal to capital markets that we are serious about getting our fiscal house in order.

One particularly impactful provision included in the legislation is a stipulation that expands eligibility for the state’s Community Reinvestment Improvement Zone (CRIZ), a powerful community revitalization tool for Pennsylvania cities. Under the new provision the City of Scranton will be eligible to apply to DCED and compete for a CRIZ designation.Downtown Scranton

Since taking office, I have introduced legislation and fought to include the City of Scranton in the CRIZ program. We are already experiencing a renaissance in downtown Scranton and if we are successful in securing a CRIZ designation we can accelerate the pace of economic growth and revitalization in the City.

Another important provision added to the Education Code is language that grants the Scranton School District the option to switch from a gross receipts tax – known as the business privilege and mercantile tax — to a payroll tax in a revenue-neutral manner.

The reforms to the Act 47 program that we passed in 2014 allowed distressed municipalities to seek court approval to switch from a gross receipts tax to a payroll tax in a revenue-neutral manner. Taxes on gross receipts are regressive and punitive to the business community – small businesses, in particular. This new provision grants the Scranton School District the option to make the same revenue-neutral switch to a more progressive tax.

It is important to note that it is only an option and there are no immediate plans to consider a switch at this time. The state is simply offering the Mayor and City Council – as well as the Scranton School District – additional local tax policy options. Considerable local research and data collection will be necessary before considering any changes.

DCED Sec. Davin Participates in Walking Tour of Downtown Scranton

Sen. Blake, DCED Secretary Dennis Davin and Scranton Chamber of Commerce president Bob Durkin tour downtown ScrantonIt was a great pleasure to host DCED Secretary Dennis Davin last week for a walking tour of ‪Scranton that allowed myself and a number of our local business leaders an important opportunity to show the Secretary how our region is leveraging state investment to revitalize the city and generate economic development.

Our tour included discussions about the development at The Marketplace at Steamtown; plans for the Lackawanna County Government Center at the former Globe Store; the Lackawanna College investment in the 400 block of Adams Avenue; the great work being done at Leahy Hall at the University of Scranton; and the high demand for downtown residential living.

Thank you to The Greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce president Bob Durkin for helping to lead the tour and discussion about the great work being done here in the city of Scranton and across our region.

Click here for more pictures from our tour and click here to read the Scranton Times article regarding our tour and discussion.

Pension Oversight Bill Set to Become Law

CapitolAcross the Commonwealth, our pension systems are significantly underfunded and remain incredibly burdensome on municipalities, school districts and our state budget. Once signed by the governor, this new law will streamline state government reviews and fiscal analyses for all state and municipal pension legislation and assure continuity in the distribution of $250 million in annual state pension aid to municipal pension systems throughout the state.

I appreciate the bipartisan work of my colleagues in the Senate and House to get this bill, for which I was the prime sponsor, to the Governor’s desk for signature.

Senate Bill 1227, which was unanimously approved by the Senate, transfers previous statutory obligations relating to state and municipal pensions to the state’s nonpartisan Independent Fiscal Office (IFO) and to the Auditor General’s office. Under the new law, the state auditor general will perform analyses of more than 3,000 municipal pension funds statewide and determine the amount of state pension aid due to these systems while the IFO will be tasked with engaging professional actuarial analyses to inform lawmakers on the impact of any state or municipal pension reform legislation.

The final work product is the result of several months of collaborative work involving myself, Senator Pat Browne, Rep. Mike Tobash, Rep. Ted Harhai and Governor Wolf's Budget Secretary.

This legislation – the product of a five-party agreement – is proof that legislators and the executive branch can work together to enact meaningful change. By improving the process of pension review in Harrisburg, we can begin to see a more accurate picture of the appropriate solution-set for state and municipal pension reforms.

Around the District and in the State Capitol

Anthracite Heritage Day video

It was an honor to join my Senate colleagues from NEPA in introducing a legislation that officially designated July 16 as Anthracite Heritage Day in Pennsylvania to pay tribute to the tens of thousands of coal miners from across NEPA that sacrificed so much in order for our region and our country to flourish both economically and industrially.   

Judge Julia Munley

Congratulations to our newest Lackawanna County Judge Julia Munley on her confirmation by the ‪PA Senate. Judge Munley is a very knowledgeable and successful lawyer and a woman of great integrity and compassion. I know she will make all of Lackawanna County proud as a Judge on our Court of Common Pleas.

   
United Neighborhood Centers

Mike Hanley, Elm Street Program Manager, recently gave myself; Cassandra Coleman, Northeast Regional Director for Gov. Tom Wolf; George Kelly, Director, Lackawanna County Economic Development; and DCED Secretary Dennis Davin a tour of United Neighborhood Center's revitalized Cedar Avenue Project.

Follow Me on Twitter

Follow me on Twitter @SenJohnBlake!

   

Over $5 Million in Grant Funding Approved for District Projects

I was very pleased to announce earlier this month that more than $5 million in state grant funding for projects throughout the 22nd Senatorial District.

The funding, approved at a meeting of the Commonwealth Financing Authority (CFA), includes over $3.3 million in grants to Lackawanna County projects in the form Local Share Account funding; CFA Multimodal Transportation Fund grants; and Act 13 funding.

Each of these grants is a very important state investment into our communities and regional economy that will create jobs, enhance the quality of life and improve public safety. Through gaming revenues, an impact fee on drilling and our Act 89 reforms, we have been able to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into our communities and make positive, long-term impacts across the Commonwealth.

The majority of the grants approved today were through the Monroe County Local Share Account. LSA funds may be used for economic development, community development and public interest projects in Monroe County and its contiguous counties, which include Carbon, Lackawanna, Northampton, Pike and Wayne.

The Multimodal Transportation Fund, through the CFA, provides grants to encourage economic development and ensure that a safe and reliable system of transportation is available to the residents of the commonwealth.

Lastly, the CFA approved funding for projects under Act 13 that include abandoned mine drainage abatement; abandoned well plugging; sewage treatment; greenways, trails and recreation; baseline water quality data; watershed restoration; and flood control.

For a complete list of the projects in the 22nd District that received grant funding, click here. 

PA Department of Health Launches Safe Harbor Letter Online Application

Department of HealthThe Pennsylvania Department of Health recently announced that parents and caregivers seeking medical marijuana for their children can now apply for the Safe Harbor Letter online via the DOH website.
 
The letter will help parents buy medical marijuana in states with legalized medical cannabis dispensaries while Pennsylvania continues building its own program over the next two years.

In order to apply, parents and all applicable caregivers must receive the Safe Harbor Letter Physician Form from the child's doctor and submit it electronically to the department. Applicants must also submit to a background check and provide a copy of a photo ID. Spouses will have to provide marriage licenses, legal guardians will submit guardianship papers and caregivers will have to include “proof of their status.”

The department warns a Safe Harbor Letter may not protect applicants from federal prosecution — where possession of marijuana of any kind if still illegal.

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Offices to Serve You

 

District Office
Oppenheim Building
409 Lackawanna Ave., Ste. 210
Scranton, PA 18503
Phone: (570) 207-2881
Fax: (570) 207-2897
Toll free: 1-877-346-5721
Hours: 8:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.

Harrisburg Office
Room 17 East Wing
The State Capitol
Senate Box 203022
Harrisburg, PA 17120-3022
Phone: (717) 787-6481
Fax: (717) 783-5198
Hours: 8:30 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.