Wilkinsburg, August 4, 2016 – At the request of state Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa, a joint state Senate-House Democratic Policy Committee hearing was held today on efforts and resources to fight blight within our communities, including the successes and challenges of land banks.
“Blight is a scourge that impedes both business and residential interest in a community,” Costa said. “We must do what we can to give our municipalities the resources, tools and flexibility they need to quickly eradicate blight and begin revitalization efforts.”
Costa said blight poses health and safety risks, reduces neighborhood property values, drains municipal revenue on enforcement and maintenance efforts, and discourages community investment and growth.
Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton), who chairs the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, said “transforming dilapidated properties from community liabilities to revitalization linchpins must be our shared goal.”
Boscola added that Pennsylvania has approximately 300,000 vacant properties – many of them eye-sores. She said legislators should steer clear of “one-size-fits-all solutions” and give local government leaders the “flexibility to tailor revitalization efforts that fit their unique needs.”
State Rep. Ed Gainey (D-Allegheny), who co-chaired the hearing, said the state has passed several laws in recent years aimed at assisting local governments in blight removal and revitalization initiatives. He added that there are also numerous proposals under consideration in the legislature that would generate more funding for demolition and revitalization work and toughen penalties against absentee owners.
Costa said a 2012 law that established land banks provides an innovative way to acquire and ready properties for reinvestment. He pointed to the local Tri-COG Land Bank as a “promising program that numerous Allegheny county communities should look into.” Tri-COG recently received a pledge of $1.5 million in seed funding from the Heinz endowment.
A land bank acquires blighted properties, clears delinquent taxes and liens, and prepares the property for investment and revitalization – all aimed at returning the property to the tax rolls and productive use. A county or municipality must have a population of at least 10,000 to form a land bank. Local governments have the option of joining and must pay 5 percent of yearly delinquent tax collections to help fund the program.
Urban Redevelopment Authority Director Kyra Straussman lamented that a fourth of the city’s footprint is abandoned and vacant property that the government does not control.
“While our tax base is eroding, we are simultaneously directly paying millions in tax dollars annually to keep problem vacant and abandoned property just as it is,” she said.
Matt Madia, who serves as chief strategy and development officer for Bridgestone Capital investment program, discussed his firm’s revitalization work, including its $9.6 million effort to revitalize the Homewood neighborhood in Pittsburgh. He said some of their business loans have resulted in new businesses occupying commercial space that would otherwise be vacant. He said providing this core business sector with its products and services helps make a neighborhood “welcoming and livable.”
Mark Mohn, vice-chair state Association of Realtors Legislative Committee, said rising property local taxes has worsened the blight problem by making home ownership less affordable. He said lawmakers should consider shifting the tax burden away from homeowners to more broad-based local and state resources.
“It’s time to stop picking the pockets of homebuyers,” Mohn added, suggesting that lawmakers should consider allowing bond referendums and Social Impact Bonds where municipalities can pay back outside investors for transforming blighted properties into productive ones.
Others who testified were: Cynthia Whitman Daley, policy director of the PA Housing Alliance; Tracey Evans, executive director of the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation; A. William Schenck, TriState Capital Bank Board Member, Pennsylvania Economy League of Greater Pittsburgh; An Lewis, Director, Steel Rivers COG; Daniel Lavelle, board member, Pittsburg Land Bank; and Liz Kozub, Community Development coordinator, Turtle Creek COG.
Joining Costa, Gainey and Boscola were Senators John Blake (D-Lackawanna), Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny/Westmoreland), Wayne Fontana (D-Allegheny), and Representatives Chris Sainato (D-Lawrence) and Paul Costa (D-Allegheny).
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Harrisburg, May 18, 2016 – With drug overdose deaths reaching epidemic levels, Senate Democrats unveiled legislation today to address the opioid addiction crisis from prevention through recovery.
“Addiction is a disease that does not discriminate and there is no easy solution to fix the problem,” Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) said. “When addiction finds its way into a family, it can nearly paralyze them for fear of what the future may hold.”
Recognizing the need to provide support at all levels, the Senate Democrats’ legislation focuses on providing new opportunities for education and treatment as well as expanded support options in the community for addicts, professionals and families.
“We cannot address this problem in a vacuum and must work to provide the necessary services and support to everyone involved,” Costa said. “Families are being affected and communities torn apart as a result of opioid abuses and heroin addiction.”
Opioids are a class of drug that include heroin as well as the prescription pain relievers oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl and others. According to a University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health study, fatal drug overdoses in Pennsylvania increased 14 fold between 1979 and 2014.
“We are in the midst of the worst ever overdose death epidemic and the worst public health crisis of the last 100 years, Secretary of Drug and Alcohol Programs Gary Tennis said. “It will continue to take a collaborative effort among many partners to effectively address this crisis.”
The package of legislation includes:
Emergency Addiction Treatment Program – Charging the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs with establishing a comprehensive program that includes new addiction treatment facilities for those drug users that are currently going without care; new intake methods to provide information to those with addiction problems or their family and friends; advice and assistance in accessing treatment; and data collection to help identify patterns of addiction.
School Aged Children Opioid Awareness Education Program – Requiring the Departments of Drug and Alcohol Programs, Health, and Education to work cooperatively to design an opioid awareness education programs to be delivered in schools.
Addiction Treatment Professional Loan Forgiveness Program – Require the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA) to develop an addiction treatment professional loan forgiveness program.
Opioid Addiction Prevention and Treatment Assessment – Impose a 10 percent assessment on the first sale of an opioid into the state. Revenues from the assessment will be used to support the purchase of naloxone for local law enforcement and emergency management personnel in addition to supporting addiction prevention and treatment programs.
Responding to the Senate Democratic proposals to the drug and alcohol problem, Deb Beck from the Drug and Alcohol Service Providers Organization of Pennsylvania said that the drug and alcohol problem “has reached epidemic levels in the state and these proposals will be life saving in impact.”
Potential funding stream would freeze property taxes for seniors
Harrisburg – October 24, 2013 – State Senate Democrats said today they were pleased that Gov. Tom Corbett has now signaled his approval of their plan to direct revenues generated from small games of chance in taverns to the Lottery Fund. The Democratic plan would bolster lottery programs and create a potential funding source for a property tax freeze benefitting seniors.
“Senate Democrats are unified in the desire to use the revenues generated from small games of chance in taverns to help seniors,” Sen. Jay Costa (D-Allegheny), the Senate Democratic leader, said. “Our members believe strongly that these new revenues should be targeted to aid seniors instead of being disbursed into the General Fund.
“We certainly hope that the final version of the small games legislation includes our idea to target the revenue for the Lottery Fund.”
Costa, Democratic Appropriations Committee Chair Vincent J. Hughes (D-Philadelphia) and Sen. John Blake (D-Lackawanna), who sponsored the plan as an amendment to House Bill 1098, said today that the new revenues from the Senate Democratic plan would provide flexibility and create opportunities.
On Wednesday, the Corbett administration circulated an email to lawmakers indicating that they were supportive of putting the money from the tavern small games into the Lottery Fund.
The Senate Democratic plan — detailed in the Blake amendment — was voted down during a Senate Appropriations Committee meeting on Tuesday. The legislation was eventually reported from committee and passed in the Senate, 39-11. It is now in the House of Representatives.
The new tax on small games of chance in taverns is expected to generate $38 million this year and $156 million in 2014-‘15, according to Senate fiscal notes.
“Senate Democrats have tried to explain why this was so important and how it could be used to help fund critical senior programs,” Hughes said. “We are hopeful that with the governor’s endorsement of our plan, House members will adopt the approach and support it when they return to session in November.”
Blake said helping fund senior programs is important and the new revenue may be the funding conduit that allows the General Assembly to develop a property tax freeze for seniors.
“The new funds would give the legislature flexibility and resources that can be set aside to help seniors address high property taxes,” Blake said. “These new revenues must be employed effectively and a specific use must be identified.
“My amendment made it clear that the revenues should be earmarked for the Lottery Fund, from which we already provide property tax relief and from which we already fund essential programs for our seniors.”
No Legislative Oversight, Lack of Financial Backing Panned by Senate Democrats
Harrisburg, May 13, 2013 – A new unfunded education mandate now being quietly pursued by the Corbett administration will soon saddle school districts with a $300 million expense and threaten graduation for thousands of students across Pennsylvania, Senate Democrats said today at a Capitol news conference.
Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D-Chester) Democratic chair of the Senate Education Committee, Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny), Sens. Judy Schwank, John Blake and Jim Brewster all expressed their displeasure and concerns about the proposed changes.
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“We are not opposed to the implementation of Common Core standards for Pennsylvania’s students,” Dinniman said. “But we are opposed to Common Core standards without adequate state financial resources for our schools so that all of our students have the opportunity to succeed under those standards, including those in financially distressed school districts.
“For the Commonwealth to increase standards without the adequate fiscal resources is a charade. It is a sham that will only lead to false hope,” Dinniman said.
Common Core standards are being sought by the state Department of Education as a way to determine proficiency and graduation eligibility.
According to Dinniman, the implementation of Common Core standards will result in an unfunded mandate of at least $300 million for local schools. There is no specified funding or plan to provide for the remedial instruction, the redesign of curriculum, or the project-based assessments for those who repeatedly fail the tests.
“The implementation of these new standards should be reviewed thoroughly by the General Assembly,” Costa said. “This whole new testing structure will cost taxpayers dearly and it is being implemented without a full understanding of the benefits for students, teachers, administrators and taxpayers.
“A complete explanation of what is being sought by the department is necessary before Pennsylvania schools put these new standards into play.”
Schwank, who represents the economically and academically struggling Reading School District, said the new testing will be particularly devastating to fiscally challenged schools.
“School districts like Reading, as well as many others around the state, are drowning in red ink now,” Schwank said. “These new mandates, without proper fiscal support, will make their financial plight even worse.
“There is certainly nothing wrong with increasing proficiency standards but students, teachers and schools must have resources to invest to address deficiencies.”
To implement new standards and testing procedures without adding dollars makes no sense, Blake (D-Lackawanna) noted. Especially, he said, after the Corbett administration has slashed basic education support by $900 million.
“To add new core testing procedures and a mandate at a cost exceeding $300 million after cutting education support is irresponsible,” Blake said. “The local property taxpayer is going to get squeezed and economically strapped schools and taxpayers will bear an even greater burden.”
Brewster said instead of implementing more tests and costs, educators and the Corbett administration need to step back and decide whether the current testing structure is constructive. He has proposed Senate Bill 823 to create a bi-partisan commission to recommend changes or a total scrapping of the current student testing procedures.
“My belief is we need to look at what we are doing with student testing and come up with a new, better approach that accurately reflects student, school, teacher and community performance,” Brewster said. “Today’s tests are flawed and the whole system is need of restructuring.”
Senate Democrats also lamented that the new Common Core tests involve 10 days of testing, which takes even more time away from traditional instruction.
They added that districts could receive a deeper financial bludgeoning if students fail to pass the tests.
The new Common Core standards will exacerbate the problem of teaching to the test, Senate Democrats said.
Harrisburg, February 11, 2013 – State Sens. Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) and John Blake (D- Lackawanna/Luzerne/Monroe) said that instead of outsourcing the Pennsylvania Lottery’s operations to a U.K. company, Camelot Global Services, the governor should allow the Lottery to implement AFSCME’s recommendations to raise new revenue.
“Instead of privatizing the management of the Pennsylvania Lottery, the governor should instruct the Lottery to move on many of the recommendations made in the AFSCME report so that hundreds of millions in new revenue can be generated,” Costa, the Senate Democratic Leader, said. “If current Lottery employees were given the latitude that is called for in the PMA with Camelot, they would clearly equal or exceed the revenue projections of the proposed contractor.”
“Instead of privatizing lottery operations without the consultation of lawmakers, we should be using our current, dedicated and capable Pennsylvania employees to grow the Lottery and generate more revenue to aid our seniors,” Blake said.
Blake, who serves as the Democratic Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said that it would make more sense to build on the strengths of a successful system and a successful Lottery workforce rather than turning the entire operation over to a private, for-profit enterprise.
“I see no reason why we need to privatize the Lottery using a foreign concern when we can implement many of the recommendations made in the AFSCME report to boost revenue,” Blake said. “The governor should reconsider the decision on outright privatization and instead build on our successful system by expanding its discretion and simply augmenting its operations with any needed outside marketing or managerial experience.”
The recommendations made by AFSCME were contained in a counterproposal that the union generated following the governor’s decision to privatize the Lottery using a Private Management Agreement (PMA). AFSCME indicated that it could generate $1.5 billion more in lottery profit.
A recent Franklin and Marshall survey indicated sixty-four percent of registered voters who were asked oppose privatization of the Pa Lottery.
“The AFSCME proposal contains recommendations that will boost revenue, institute more internal controls and provide for greater accountability. We need to give our Lottery and our workers a chance to create more revenue and expand before we send the management of our system overseas,” Costa said.