Senate Democrats’ Small Games Plan Now Backed by Governor

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.”

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Blake, Eichelberger Taxpayer Protection Bills Clear Committee

HARRISBURG, June 26, 2013 Legislation to protect Pennsylvania’s taxpayers from irresponsible financial transactions by local governments or their related municipal authorities moved one step closer to becoming law today.

Sens. John Blake (D-Lackawanna/Luzerne/Monroe) and John H. Eichelberger Jr. (R-Bedford/Blair/Huntingdon/Fulton/Mifflin) today had two bills of a four-bill municipal debt reform package pass the Senate Local Government Committee, of which Eichelberger is the chairman and Blake is a member. The committee unanimously passed both bills that will now start to move through the legislative process.

Senate Bill 901 grants greater oversight of municipal borrowing processes to the PA Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED). It would also limit local government guarantees of bonds and loans taken out by municipal authorities, and prohibit the charging of fees for those guarantees.

Senate Bill 902 would give the state Ethics Commission and other law enforcement officials the power to investigate circumstances of conflict of interest if local officials are found to have benefitted personally from decisions they made in an official capacity involving public funds. It would also require that proceeds from borrowings carried out by local municipal authorities not be used for purposes unrelated to the project for which the debt was incurred.

“We moved one step closer today to providing needed taxpayer protections and improved oversight on local government financing deals,” said Blake, the prime sponsor of SB 902.

“These bills need to be signed into law to correct flaws or omissions in previous laws and to ensure Pennsylvania’s local government officials are properly accountable to the taxpayers and ratepayers they serve. In addition, SB 901 will ensure that DCED is better positioned — and resourced — to monitor and approve financial transactions that occur to advance the public interest and to meet the needs of our local communities,” Eichelberger said.

The lawmakers have been working with Local Government Committee Democratic Chairman Sen. Rob Teplitz (D-Dauphin) as well as with Sen. Mike Folmer (R-Berks/Chester/Dauphin/Lancaster/Lebanon) on a package of reform proposals that resulted from hearings last fall on the Harrisburg incinerator financing debacle that undermined the fiscal security of the City of Harrisburg. Additional bills authored by Teplitz and Folmer involving so called “swap” transactions by local governments and local municipal authorities will be the subject of additional hearings later this year.

“Today’s votes on SB 901 and SB 902 demonstrated strong bi-partisan support, and we will continue to work together to ensure the entire four-bill reform package gets to the governor’s desk,” Eichelberger said.

 

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 Contacts:

 Mark Shade (Sen. Blake) – 717-787-9220 or mshade@pasenate.com

Lee Derr (Sen. Eichelberger) – 717-787-5490 or lderr@pasen.gov

$ 300 Million Education Common Core Mandate Threatens Graduation

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.

 

Senate Democrats Seek Job Creation, Education, Safety Net Dollars in Budget Discussions

Harrisburg, April 17, 2013 – Senate Democrats’ 2013-14 budget priorities are heavily weighted toward job creation, education investments, strengthening the social-services safety net, modernizing liquor sales and refocusing Pennsylvania’s business tax menu to help small businesses, they announced today at a Capitol news conference.

Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) said that Senate Democrats will go into this year’s budget negotiations with a clear purpose and “are resolved that the state’s economy must be jump-started. New jobs must be created and we have to reverse the negative course that the Corbett administration has plotted for Pennsylvania on education and protecting our most vulnerable.”

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“We have an opportunity and a responsibility to seek new investments and use resources that are available to change policy direction during this year’s budget negotiations.”

Costa said Senate Democrats believe that more than 120,000 jobs can be created quickly by enacting a responsible transportation plan, expanding Medicaid and using economic development policies outlined in their PA Works plan.

Costa was joined by a host of Senate Democrats in making today’s announcement.

Sen. Vincent Hughes, who serves as the Democratic chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said that by taking action now on key economic initiatives then restoring job creation and community programs to their past luster — before Corbett budgets sliced them to the core — is an excellent starting point.

“We need to start creating jobs right now and we can do that by working on transportation and Medicaid expansion,” Hughes (D-Philadelphia/Montgomery) said. “These initiatives coupled with rebuilding water and sewer systems, investing in schools and new technologies will create economic growth immediately.

“In addition, by investing in programs such as Main Street, Elm Street and international business we can help small business here while they market their products abroad.,”

Democratic Whip Sen. Tony Williams (D-Philadelphia/Delaware) said that the caucus was turning up the heat on the Corbett administration on jobs, health care, education and social safety net issues because the governor has failed to lead.

“We’ve outlined reasonable strategic policy alternatives that will reverse direction and provide a new path and we’ve identified revenues that will pay for the proposed expenditures,” Williams said. “Pennsylvania is rudderless on job creation and our economic numbers and business indicators under this administration illustrate the problem.

“Our most vulnerable can also not withstand another senseless round of Corbett cuts and we have to restore programs that promote help for those in need.”

Williams said that Pennsylvania is now 43rd in job creation, falling from eighth place among all states under Gov. Ed Rendell’s leadership. Plus, he said, last month’s unemployment claims fell nationally to below 350,000 but, because of Corbett policy short-sightedness, Pennsylvania led the country in new unemployment claims.

Senate Democrats said that they have laid out specific plans to achieve results in the 2013-14 budget in five areas. These include: strategic investments to create jobs; improving education; repositioning business taxes while closing business tax loopholes; modernizing the wine and spirits stores; and repairing and protecting social safety net programs.

The caucus leaders said that they’ve noted at least $750 million in annual savings, plus another $150 million in one-time revenues. They also said that we need to find resources to pay for specific new expenditures including $225 million for basic education, $50 million to aid distressed cities and communities, $40 million for transitional housing and homeownership among other items, and funds for new tax credits for a variety of areas including film production.

Democrats said that priority details include a three-year phase in of new monies to restore education dollars and key student-performance based initiatives that were cut by the Corbett administration in the last two budgets.

They also said that they would emphasize rebuilding struggling communities through their Growth, Progress and Sustainability (GPS) plan; seek new funds for transitional housing and new homeownership opportunities; and push for modernizing the wine and spirits stores rather than the opt for the risky privatization scheme that has been sought by the Corbett administration.

The Democrats indicated that they expected the negotiations to become more focused once the Senate returns to session in late April.

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Blake Says Lottery Can Improve and Succeed Under Existing Management

HARRISBURG, February 26, 2013 — State Sen. John Blake (D-Lackawanna/Luzerne/Monroe), Democratic Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, today questioned the merits of privatizing management of the state’s 41-year-old Lottery.

“It is clear from today’s Appropriations Committee hearing that the administration believes that handing management of the Pennsylvania Lottery to Camelot Global Services is the best way to raise funds for seniors’ programs,” Blake said. “I disagree.”

Senator Blake questioning Revenue Department Secretary Dan Meuser at today’s budget hearing in Harrisburg.

Senator Blake questions Revenue Department Secretary Dan Meuser at today’s budget hearing in Harrisburg.

“We should leverage this already well-performing $4 billion asset and its effective and productive American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) workforce and, as necessary and appropriate, engage outside professional support to drive growth in our lottery proceeds. We should properly legislate managerial flexibility for our Lottery similar to what was considered under the Private Management Agreement (PMA) with respect to lottery revenue and marketing enhancements.”

Blake noted that the Lottery has been a continuous success story over the past four decades. Speaking at today’s budget hearing, Blake said there is significant bipartisan agreement on numerous Lottery management and performance goals. He said senators mutually agree that there is a need for increased funding for seniors’ programs.

He added that most senators agree that the Corbett Administration’s privatization proposal should have been better vetted and more strategically planned. He said there should have been greater public input and greater interaction between the executive and legislative branches. As a result of the manner in which the administration pursued privatization, Blake said the Lottery Fund will now have to absorb the legal and consulting fees that could have been avoided.

Blake said that based on documents provided by Attorney General Kathleen Kane and her recent testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee, the Attorney General ’s recent nullification of the PMA was well founded, well defended and legally substantiated.

“In making future improvements to the Lottery, I hope the governor will proceed more cooperatively, openly and transparently and further engage the General Assembly in a solution that works for our seniors,” Blake said.

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EDITOR’s NOTE: Attached is a JPG photo of Senator Blake questioning Revenue Department Secretary Dan Meuser at today’s budget hearing in Harrisburg.