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Senator Wayne D. Fontana

 

2014-15 Budget Proposal is Missed Opportunity 

CapitolAfter three years of deep budget cuts and elimination of essential programs under his administration, Governor Corbett has attempted to rebound by reinstating some funding to critical programs under his 2014-15 budget proposal unveiled last week.  However, some of the proposed restorations fall far short of the cumulative cuts over the past three years. The damage has already been done and the consequences have long been evident. 

One of the most prominent signs of the dire fiscal health of Pennsylvania is that the Commonwealth has gone from 8th in job creation to a pathetic 48th among all states. Net job growth in the past three years has declined steadily. The omission of efforts to grow business investment in this proposal risks the continuance of slow job growth and future state revenue, while presenting the very real possibility of further downgrades to our state’s bond rating.  

The proposed 2014-15 budget would bring the state’s general fund to $29.4 billion, an increase of 3.3 percent from the current year. The spending plan would be balanced with more than $1.1 billion in one time expenditures that will only perpetuate budget problems in future years, while funding more tax cuts for big business, but with no real plan to grow jobs or help our middle-class families.  

This plan would also shortchange state contributions for employee pensions. We put measures in place through Act 120 of 2010 that limited the growth of the state contribution to 4.5 percent each year which would have helped the unfunded liability level off beginning in 2016. This budget proposal cuts that rate in half and uses the money elsewhere to fill in holes in the budget. Continuing this practice would exacerbate the problem we already have of unfunded pension liability costs. To reduce the Commonwealth's required contribution in order to shift revenue to the General Fund would further balloon our future debt.

Senator FontanaBelow are some highlights of the administration’s budget proposal: 

Education:

  • The Basic Education Subsidy would remain flat-funded
  • Adds $241 million to the existing $100 million Accountability Block Grant program to create a new “Ready to Learn” block grant that schools could only use to spend on specific programs like curriculum development and teacher training  
  • $10 million in additional spending for PreK Counts
  • Special education funding increased by $20 million 
  • Head Start would see flat level funding while Early Intervention would see an increase of $841,000
  • The Public Library Subsidy would receive a $500,000 increase while the allocation for Library Services for the Visually Impaired and Disabled would remain flat-funded

Higher Education:

  • $25 million for merit-based college scholarships of up to $2,000 that are geared toward middle-income families with earnings traditionally too high for PHEAA awards
  • Funding would be unchanged for Pennsylvania's state-owned and state-related universities, in addition to the level of support to the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency for its state grant program

Healthcare and Human Services:

  • $9 million increase for outreach and enrollment efforts for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)
  • Additional $23.5 million to provide services for people with intellectual disabilities or autism with home and community-based services
  • A 10 percent increase of $2.2 million for rape crisis centers and domestic violence programs
  • Farmers’ Market Food Coupons would be flat-funded
  • Regional Cancer Institutes would see a decrease of $150,000
  • Veterans Homes would see a decrease of $690,000

Corrections and Police:

  • Department of Corrections would receive a hefty additional $78.3 million
  • $13 million increase for the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole
  • 350 new state troopers would be trained with the $13.7 million appropriation

Job Creation:

  • A public-private partnership funded with $10 million from a state program to attract job creators to Pennsylvania

Miscellaneous:

  • Grants to the Arts would see a $411,000 increase
  • Film Production Tax Credit remains flat-funded

Some of the ways Governor Corbett has suggested to balance the budget include:

  • Ending a ban on new leases for natural gas drilling beneath state forests and state parks to raise $75 million. 
  • An additional $150 million would be raised by allowing the state to claim unclaimed property after three years of inactivity rather than five. 
  • Legalizing keno under the state lottery system to pay for senior citizens programs
  • $125 million hinges on the federal government approving requests from the administration to overhaul our Medicaid program which would include changes to benefit packages, enact co-pays and premiums and move some people from state-funded to federally-funded care.  An expansion of Medicaid in the state would mean a $400 million savings

Cumulative cuts for education have totaled nearly $2.5 billion under this administration. Not only are there no proposed increases in the basic education subsidy for 2014-15, but the new "Ready to Learn" block grants as proposed come with strings attached with regard to how school districts may use this funding.  How can this administration go around touting more funding for education when the backbone of school districts' funding will not even see a slight increase for the upcoming school year?

In addition, while I applaud the governor for finally proposing greater investment in job training programs, we need to invest more. We should be making a bigger commitment to proven programs that create jobs and help businesses succeed and expand.  The administration’s agenda of giving big businesses $1.2 billion in tax breaks over the past three years has clearly not worked because we continue to see the number of unemployed grow rather than decline. 

I am also disappointed that the governor did not even mention raising the minimum wage and continues to reject a Medicaid expansion.  Living wages and affordable healthcare are a great starting point to getting our economy back to where it needs to be and would represent long-term fiscal responsibility.  Clearly it is time for this administration to implement more sensible policies and I feel that this budget proposal is a few years too late. 

PACE/PACENET Social Security COLA Extension

Pace/PacenetApproximately 300,000 older Pennsylvanians rely on PACE and PACENET for assistance with their prescription medications.   Act 21 of 2011 allowed nearly 40,000 PACE and PACENET cardholders to keep the benefit they would have otherwise have lost due to Social Security cost-of-living adjustments (COLAS) in 2012 and 2013 that counted as income.  However, at the end of December 2013, the moratorium on COLAS expired and legislation needed to be passed to extend the eligibility so that current recipients could continue participation in these vital programs. 

Act 12 was signed into law this month that would adjust the eligibility requirements for PACE and PACENET to accommodate Social Security COLAS until December 31, 2015.  The act also included provisions that would exclude Medicare Part B premiums from the current definition of income.  This is estimated to qualify more than 8,200 seniors for PACE and PACENET. 

FAFSA Completion Assistance

FAFSA FAFSA I want to remind all high school seniors that are interested in attending a post-secondary school to complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).  The FAFSA is the federal form that all students must submit to determine eligibility for most forms of need-based financial assistance, including the Pennsylvania State Grant, the Federal Pell Grant, work-study programs, the PA Targeted Industry Program (PA-TIP), various scholarships, some school-based aid, and federal student loans.  The only way to find out if you qualify for awards is to complete and submit the FAFSA.  Students who are eligible for awards can reduce their family’s out-of-pocket expenses and make the cost of higher education more manageable.

In my role as Vice-Chair of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA), I want families and students to know there is free help available to them when applying for financial assistance for college.  PHEAA, in conjunction with the PA Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (PASFAA) is offering FAFSA Completion Sessions across the Commonwealth through April for families with students planning to attend college.  To view a listing of the FAFSA Completion Sessions taking place around the Commonwealth, please visit the FAFSA Completion Help Page on PHEAA's website.   This site will be updated as additional sessions are scheduled.

PHEAA pheaa Students and families will be able to complete the FAFSA online at www.fafsa.ed.gov and will need the following information when beginning the application process:

  • Social Security Numbers
  • Student’s driver’s license
  • Alien registration number, if not a U.S. citizen
  • W-2 Forms
  • Records of untaxed income received, including workers’ compensation, child support, payments to tax-deferred pension and savings plans, etc.
  • Federal income tax return (1040, 1040A, 1040EZ)
  • Current bank statements and records of stocks, bonds, and other investments

Please remember it is better to complete and submit the FAFSA as soon as possible after that date as schools’ financial aid deadlines vary.

IRS Warns of Scams

TaxesAs millions of Americans begin preparing and filing income tax returns, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) wants taxpayers to be on guard against scams and to be vigilant of any unexpected communication purportedly from the IRS at the beginning of tax season.  Please be aware that thieves often pose as the IRS using a bogus refund scheme or by issuing warnings to pay past-due taxes. 

It’s important to know the IRS does not initiate contact with taxpayers by email to request personal or financial information, including any type of e-communication such as text messages and social media sites.  The IRS also does not ask for PIN numbers, passwords, or similar confidential information for credit card, bank or other accounts.  If you do receive an unexpected email, do not open any attachments or click on any links contained in the message; rather forward the email to phishing@irs.gov.

The IRS also would like to provide a few tips on how to best protect against identity theft and scams:

  • Do not carry your Social Security card or any documents that include your Social Security number (SSN) or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN)

  • Do not give a business your SSN or ITIN just because they ask.  Give it only when required

  • Protect your financial information

  • Check your credit report every 12 months

  • Secure personal information in your home

  • Protect your personal computers by using firewalls and anti-spam/virus software, updating security patches and changing passwords for Internet accounts

  • Do not give personal information over the phone, through the mail or on the Internet unless you have initiated the contact and are sure of the recipient

  • Be careful when you choose a tax preparer

Shopping for Electricity

PA Power Switch PA Power Switch I want to remind constituents that the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) has created a website, www.papowerswitch.com, which allows consumers to compare rates from electric suppliers and to choose a lower priced option.  With cold temperatures increasing demand for electricity, the PUC is reminding customers with variable contracts, or those with fixed contracts that have expired and were moved to a variable rate, that they may see their prices increase.  Consumers are encouraged to check the terms and conditions they received when they enrolled with the supplier or contact the supplier to check the status of their prices.  Consumers interested in shopping for a new electric supplier should then visit www.papowerswitch.com to see what supplier options are available in their area.

Consumers needing assistance in paying their energy bills can click here to view a list of programs available that can help.  Also, anyone interested in learning more about energy conservation can view some helpful conservation tips by visiting the PAPowerSwitch.

Adult Trout Stocking Schedules

Fish and Boat Commission Fish & Boat Commission The Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PFBC)  has 2014 adult trout stocking schedules available online.  Anglers can easily search the trout stocking schedules for locations and dates of interest by visiting www.fishandboat.com.  Once on the site, click on the link for Trout Stocking 2014 and select a county, and start and end dates from the calendars at the top of the page to generate a schedule.  The search results will provide each body of water within a county that is scheduled for stocking, the section of water, date, species of trout, meeting place and time, hatchery stocking the section, regulations that apply, and the latitude and longitude numbers.

The 2014 season will open statewide on April 12th, with a Mentored Youth Fishing Day scheduled for April 5th.  The Mentored Youth Fishing Day provides adults a special day to fish with children, ages 16 and under, in advance of opening day.  To learn more about the Mentored Youth Program click here.

Did You Know…

Did you know each year the PFBC stocks nearly 3.2 million adult trout in 731 streams and 124 lakes open to public angling across the Commonwealth?

BeatlesFontana Fact

This past Sunday, February 9th marked the 50th anniversary of the legendary band, The Beatles, making their debut to an American television audience on the Ed Sullivan Show.  The Beatles one and only concert in Pittsburgh came later that year, in 1964, when they performed in front of a crowd of more than 12,000 people at the Civic Arena on September 14th.

Offices of State Senator Wayne D. Fontana

  Brookline District
932 Brookline Blvd.
Pittsburgh, PA 15226
Phone: 412-344-2551
Fax: 412-344-3400
Harrisburg
543 Main Capitol
Box 203042
Harrisburg, PA 17120
Phone: 717-787-5300
Fax: 717-772-5484
Kennedy Township
Kenmawr Plz.
524 Pine Hollow Rd
Kennedy Twp, PA 15136
Phone: 412-331-1208
Fax: 412-331-2079
Beechview Satellite
1660 Broadway Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15216
Phone: 412-343-2080
Fax: 412-343-2418
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