Senate Democrats Outline Legislation to Combat Opioid and Heroin Crisis

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.”

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Senate Hearing Focuses on Budget Impasse’s Impact on Schools

Harrisburg – October 28, 2015 – At the request of state Sen. Vince Hughes (D-Phila.), the Senate Democratic Policy Committee today held a hearing on the devastating impact that the state’s 120-day budget impasse is having on schools across the state.

“While many of the budget dispute points remain unresolved, what is clear is that the consequences of this impasse are far-reaching,” said Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton), who chairs the committee. “This hearing gives lawmakers a sense of how schools are handling the funding shortfall, and what problems they’ll face if this stalemate continues to drag on.”

Hughes added, “A growing number of schools have been cornered into borrowing money and taking out credit lines just to keep their doors open. Hopefully, this hearing’s focus on this worsening statewide financial crisis will encourage greater urgency, cooperation and compromise in the ongoing budget negotiations.”

During the hearing, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale testified that at least 27 school districts have taken out loans totaling more than $431 million. He projected that interest payments will total $30 million if the stalemate reaches mid-November.

Those who testified decried how the impasse has harmed students, depleted reserves and how taxpayers will be needlessly saddled with paying the interest on the growing number of loans and credit lines that schools are obtaining to keep their doors open.

Erie Public Schools Superintendent Jay Badams lamented that his district will need to borrow $30 million just to get through January.

“That’s $114,000 in wasted interest money that could have been used for so many badly needed educational expenses,” Badams said.

Dr. Joseph Roy, who serves as superintendent of the Bethlehem Area School District in Northampton County, added that “choices at the state level continue to hammer school districts.” He said the diversion of funds to charter and cyber schools and a “punitive” approach to public education has blown up school expenditures.

Dr. Rula Skezas, who serves as superintendent of the McKeesport Area School District in Allegheny County, noted that even if the district receives its proposed funding it would still fall short of what it received during the 2011 school year. She said McKeesport has taken out a $5 million line of credit to make it to December. She said the district has already eliminated 110 staff positions to try and make ends meet.

Hughes, who serves as Democratic chair of the Appropriations Committee, said public, charter and private schools are already reeling from years of being underfunded. He noted that the Philadelphia School District has already borrowed $275 million during the impasse. Fran Burns, who serves as chief operating officer for the School District of Philadelphia, testified that the district has struggled to contend with a “structural deficit.”

Lamenting the impact on local working families who fund schools through property taxes, Boscola pointed toward an educational survey conducted earlier this year showing that nearly 75 percent of districts were planning to impose property tax hikes, 30 percent were planning on making additional program cuts, and 41 percent were making more staff cuts. She said the state has withheld approximately $3 billion in school funds since the budget impasse began in July.

Joining Boscola and Hughes at the Capitol committee hearing were Senators John Blake (D-Lackawanna), Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny), Andrew Dinniman (D-Montgomery), Christine Tartaglione (D-Phila.) and Sean Wiley (D-Erie),

Those testifying included:

  • The Honorable Eugene DePasquale
    Pennsylvania Auditor General
  • Fran Burns
    Chief Operating Officer, School District of Philadelphia
  • Joseph Gorham
    Superintendent of Schools, Carbondale Area School District
  • Dr. Joseph Roy
    Superintendent of Schools, Bethlehem Area School District
  • Dr. Jay D. Badams
    Superintendent, Erie Public Schools
  • Dr. Rula S. Skezas
    Superintendent, McKeesport Area School District
  • Marjorie Neff
    Chair, School Reform Commission
  • Anthony Pirrello
    CEO, Montessori Regional Charter School of Erie, and Vice President of Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools
  • Matt Przywara
    Member, PASBO
    Chief Financial and Operations Officer, School District of Lancaster
  • Bill LaCoff
    President, Pennsylvania School Boards Association
  • Susan Gobreski
    Education Voters of Pennsylvania
  • Dr. Pearl English
    School Nurse, School District of Philadelphia

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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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$ 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.