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Senator Fontana addresses a standing-room only crowd at last Wednesday’s meeting in Beechview about the plans and progress of the IGA Market on Broadway grocery store which is scheduled to open in early fall.

Whose Priorities Should Be Our Budget Priorities

When I first listened to Governor Corbett’s budget address last month, it was clear to me that he and I do not share the same priorities. As I learned more about his proposals and the choices that he had made in crafting the budget, those differences in priorities became even more distinct. So during the budget hearings, I was surprised and relieved to hear that many of my Republican colleagues also had serious concerns about the budget figures in several areas including education and economic development. With similar concerns, I looked forward to working with my colleagues to address our common issue.

Last week, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai said that his caucus would try to reduce proposed cuts to state-owned universities and state-related universities in their version of the state budget. That announcement came with a caveat though – not all of the higher education funds would be restored (and there was no mention of basic education funding) and the funds that would be made available would be possible through cuts to the Department of Public Welfare (DPW).

Rep. Turzai and his colleagues have introduced a package of welfare reform bills focusing on the current income eligibility system, reducing false information on applications and preventing public assistance from being used in the state’s casinos and/or for the purchase of tobacco products. While it’s not hard to imagine that there is abuse in DPW (or any other large department within the state for that matter), the fact that additional funding for higher education is contingent upon ferreting out waste and fraud is not an option at all. We should always be striving for efficiencies and effectiveness, but not as a bargaining tool for other priorities.

DPW has always been a victim of public stereotypes. Contrary to the perceptions that many in our Commonwealth have, the largest recipients of public assistance are the elderly or disabled (accounting for 72% of usage) and it is those individuals who would be hurt if this is the plan that we pursue to find funding for higher education. Yes, on paper DPW fared better than many other Departments in Governor Corbett’s budget, but there are many un-addressed issues in that same budget. Now is not the time to be cutting.

As just one example, the waiting list for people with intellectual disabilities remains unaddressed, although this was one item that Governor Corbett committed to addressing when he campaigned for office. The line item is flat funded in the Governor’s proposed budget, yet the number of individuals on the “waiting list” continues to grow. As of September 30, 2010, the Office of Developmental Programs reported that in Allegheny County, 176 people were in the emergency group (meaning they need services immediately), 1,364 were in the critical category (meaning that they will need services in 1-2 years) and 2,460 people were in the planning group (meaning that they will need services in 5 years or more). And those are just the numbers for Allegheny County.

Members of the PA Waiting List Campaign were recently in my office to discuss this concern and shared a recent article in which a mother contemplated whether her son would be better off being sent to prison because the services that keep him alive may not be available to him in the future. Looking forward, she wanted to be certain that her son would be cared for when she and her husband were no longer alive, or no longer able to care for him themselves. How appalling that this “solution” is one that any mother would contemplate for her child. Shouldn’t we, as a Commonwealth, be doing everything that we can to protect and support our most vulnerable citizens? I’m not convinced that the proposal from the House GOP takes any of that into consideration.

If we truly want to help support education in our communities, then we need to take a serious look at options that do not put our citizens’ health, safety and welfare in jeopardy. That includes seriously looking at a Marcellus Shale tax – a tax that 62% of our populace supports and that even industry leaders say they would not oppose, provided that it’s reasonable. We should consider making changes to our tax system that require big businesses to contribute by closing the Delaware loophole – a practice that allows over 70% of “C” corporations in PA to avoid paying any tax on their income. We need to look at slowing the phase out of the Capital Stock & Franchise Tax. This budget has no “shared sacrifice” – it is a budget that impacts the lower and middle class while rewarding big business.

In a perfect world, we would do everything possible to make our Commonwealth even more attractive to business. This isn’t a perfect world, though, and our responsibility as elected officials is to do what we can to protect and provide for the health, safety and welfare of the residents that we represent. I will not support efforts to reduce coverage to our most vulnerable population, not unless we first ask big business to contribute towards, and become part of, our “common wealth.”

PA Works – Pittsburgh Hearing

Father Ryan Art Center Over the last few weeks, I have provided detailed information on the PA Works proposal put forward by the Senate Democrats a few months ago. Our Policy Committee is now beginning to hold hearings on the various pieces of the proposal throughout the Commonwealth. I am proud to announce that Senator Costa and I will be hosting the Policy Committee in our region on Wednesday, May 18th beginning at 3 p.m. at the Father Ryan Arts Center in McKees Rocks. While the list of those testifying has already been sent, the hearing itself is open to the public. Efforts are being made to provide livestream coverage of the hearing and as more information becomes available, I will pass it on to you.

Thank you to the board and staff at the Father Ryan Arts Center for their hospitality and kindnesses in hosting this event.

2011 Pennsylvania Trout Season

Trout Season begins on April 16th. If you’re ready to cast your hook, then check out the 2011 Trout Stocking schedules today and select your county. To fish for trout, anglers 16 and older must possess a Trout/Salmon Stamp as well as a fishing license. For more information on fishing licenses and permits visit the Fish and Boat Commission website, or to purchase your fishing license online visit the Outdoor Shop. 2011 licenses, stamps and permits are valid December 1, 2010 through December 31, 2011.

Voter Registration Deadline

VotePA Next Monday, April 18th, is the deadline to register to vote in the May 17th primary election. Registered voters who have moved or changed their name or party affiliation must also register their updated information by April 18th. Individuals must be registered in a political party in order to vote in that party’s primary. Voter registration applications as well as absentee ballot applications are available in my district offices and on my website.

Around the District

Although this past week was the first week where there were no budget hearings in over a month, it also was the beginning of a marathon of meetings with constituents and interest groups on a variety of issues. Not one day has passed without some type of communication or meeting on issues with the budget that are of interest to someone. Last Tuesday’s session day included meetings with the PA Pharmacy Association, Pitt students who rallied at the Capitol, representatives of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities and the PA Association of Regional Food Banks, to name just a few. Tuesday also was the date of the swearing-in ceremony for Senator Judy Schwank who was elected in a special election last month to fill the vacancy left with the death of Senator Mike O’Pake. I welcome Senator Schwank and look forward to working with her on a variety of issues. (Her addition brings the total number of women in the Senate up to 11 – or 22%, perhaps the highest number it has been in history.)

Wednesday also included budget meetings and an active session calendar. I returned to Pittsburgh in the late afternoon, in time to host the IGA Community Meeting in Beechview. Over 150 people showed up to hear from the IGA Market on Broadway owner, Ron Levick, and operator, Wayne Hancock. The men were also joined by Bill Overman, Regional Director for IGA, in talking about the plans for the store, their progress and target opening date (September 1st). While they discovered numerous issues that had to be addressed in their renovations that pushed the opening date back, Wayne and Ron told attendees that it will result in a bigger and better IGA. At the meeting, Wayne and Ron distributed questionnaires to get feedback from the residents about their likes and dislikes. If you were unable to attend, or unable to complete the questionnaire, you still have the opportunity to do so by visiting my website and completing it online. Stay tuned to my website and the News & Views for additional information on an upcoming job fair and future progress updates. Wayne and Ron also encouraged attendees to “friend” the IGA Market on Broadway on Facebook.

Senator Fontana addresses a standing-room only crowd at last Wednesday’s meeting in Beechview about the plans and progress of the IGA Market on Broadway grocery store which is scheduled to open in early fall.On Thursday, I had the opportunity to meet with several community representatives on issues with which they have an interest and ended the evening at the Neighbors in the Strip Legacy Award event. My thanks to the staff and board of the organization for their kind words and the invitation.

The Homeless Children’s Education Fund hosted its Summit II: Collaborations & Models Impacting Children & Youth Experiencing Homelessness. I was proud to be a presenter at the summit and to have the opportunity to share with the over 300 attendees why I introduced SB 157 and why I believe that now is the time to act on this issue.

In early March, there was a 60 Minutes piece entitled “The Hard Times Generation.” It focused on the fact that there are now 16 million Americans who are homeless – a number that has increased by 2 million since the last Census, the largest increase in the 51 years since homelessness began being tracked. The piece also highlighted that 25% of children will likely be living in poverty by the end of this year, even with gains in employment. SB 157 is intended to address education for homeless children and to ensure that even if this is the “Hard Times Generation” that our Commonwealth do what it can to insure that a lack of education is not one more hurdle that these children must face. We can, and should, ensure that their educational future is a certainty.

I returned to Harrisburg yesterday where there were several meetings on budget issues prior to session beginning. In Senate Appropriations, we addressed a number of weighty issues, including votes on SB 1 (the Opportunity Scholarship Act) and HB 377 (legislation repealing the sprinkler mandate for new one-and-two family homes). Both of the bills could be taken up by the Senate for a final vote later this week. I have literally received hundreds of e-mails on these two issues over the past few months and am very grateful that so many constituents want to weigh in on these issues. Thank you for your thoughts and I look forward to hearing more from you.

Chatham Village Fontana Fact

Did you know Chatham Village on Mount Washington was the first moderate-income community housing project in the nation? The Buhl Foundation constructed Chatham Village in the early 1930’s as an experiment to provide affordable housing in an urban environment. Landscape architects collaborated on the design for the village to give it a distinct “garden city” feel.

Offices of State Senator Wayne D. Fontana