Senator Fontana participated in a joint hearing yesterday with the Senate Democratic and Republican Policy Committees and the Senate Judiciary Committee on the administration’s intent to close two state prisons. Testimony was provided from the Department of Corrections, State Corrections Officers Association, PA Prison Society, PA District Attorneys Association and community leaders.
Proposed Prison Closures
In the January 10 edition of my News & Views I wrote about Governor Wolf’s intention to close two state correctional institutions this year, with SCI Pittsburgh being among the five prisons being considered. Citing a growing state budget deficit, the announcement that the administration will be closing two prisons was made on January 6. The Department of Corrections stated it planned to announce its decision on which two prisons would be closing on January 26 with the goal of having the two selected facilities closed by June 30.
Upon learning of these closures, I expressed my concerns for closing SCI Pittsburgh to the governor and the corrections secretary. While I appreciate and understand that Pennsylvania has serious budget issues, my concerns here are many. These concerns include the rushed fashion in which this decision is being made, the lack of public participation, the potential job loss of our corrections staff, and concerns over rising costs for local governments as a result of closure.
Unfortunately, my attempts to hold a policy hearing in Pittsburgh on this issue were met with great resistance from the department. However, I was able to tour the SCI Pittsburgh facility last week and meet with prison workers and officials to learn more about the facility’s operations including some of the unique services they provide like their mental health and chemotherapy divisions and the programs that help veterans and individuals with substance abuse problems. Some of these services would be very costly and difficult to replicate at another facility and all of these services contribute to reducing the recidivism rate.
Yesterday I participated in a joint hearing with the Senate’s Republican and Democratic Policy Committees and the Senate’s Judiciary Committee on the proposed prison closures. During testimony, prison administrators admitted how difficult it would be to consolidate many of SCI Pittsburgh’s specialty programs. Hopefully this admission is a significant factor in the ultimate decision.
I appreciated the efforts of these Senate committees to arrange this important hearing, especially in such quick fashion. Unfortunately, one three-hour hearing, days before the administration is scheduled to announce its decision is not nearly enough time to explore all the factors and complexities of such an important issue. There still remain many unanswered questions and the public has had limited opportunity to weigh in.
Perhaps my biggest concern, and a question that has yet to be answered, is what exactly happens to the more than 550 employees at SCI Pittsburgh if this facility closes. The department has said closing SCI Pittsburgh would result in a net savings of $81 million annually. When you consider that more than 77 percent of SCI Pittsburgh’s budget is staffing, and that the department has said these workers would be allowed to transfer to another facility, the numbers don’t add up. They only add up if a large majority of these positions are eliminated. More than 300 of the 550 prison workers at SCI Pittsburgh live in Allegheny County. These are good people and solid members of our community who perform a very difficult job. These are family-sustaining jobs that help fuel our region’s economy. Most importantly, these are people that deserve answers.
For my part, I will continue to fight to keep SCI Pittsburgh open. I urge fellow local lawmakers, county and city officials, and community leaders to also step up and join this effort to save the prison and the more than 550 jobs that it represents. Staying silent only emboldens those who are targeting this prison for closure. We need a strong and united voice to protect these jobs and this economic generator.
Anyone wishing to comment or express concerns and opinions to the department can do so by emailing them at ra-CRDOCClose@pa.gov or calling 1-888-316-8950.
REAL ID Extension
In last week's edition of my News & Views I talked again about the situation regarding REAL ID and Pennsylvania’s lack of compliance with federal standards. Last week Pennsylvania was granted an extension by the federal Department of Homeland Security until June 5, 2017 to fix state law to allow for federal REAL ID compliance. This extension will allow for time to resolve our state’s non-compliance during the legislative session and means that on January 30, Pennsylvanians will no longer face immediate access issues when entering federal facilities.
Pennsylvania is one of six states currently that are not compliant with REAL ID or that have been granted an extension by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. In 2012, the Pennsylvania legislature overwhelmingly passed Act 38, to address several concerns with REAL ID at that time, which prohibited the state from participating. Many of those concerns that led to the passage of Act 38 may not be valid today considering the federal REAL ID Act required states to adopt and institute 38 specific standards to come into compliance and Pennsylvania now currently meets 32 of them. Most states that have complied with REAL ID have allowed residents the option of obtaining a REAL ID-compliant identification or non-compliant identification which reduces cost and allows the costumer to opt-in. However, PennDOT is not able to even consider giving Pennsylvanians this option because of Act 38.
I will continue to keep you updated as we move through the legislative process in an effort to make Pennsylvania compliant with these federal regulations.
PA ABLE Savings Account Program
The Pennsylvania Treasury Department has launched the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Savings Program website, www.paable.gov, that provides quick and easy access to essential information on the upcoming program to give individuals with qualified disabilities a tax-free way to save for future disability-related expenses, while maintaining government benefits. The site also has a short quiz to determine eligibility, a comprehensive Frequently Asked Question section and allows users to sign up to receive updates on the program when accounts open for enrollment.
This program was created through Act 17 of 2016, legislation I was proud to co-sponsor and support. It was modeled after the college 529 savings account programs. PA ABLE accounts will allow eligible individuals with qualifying disabilities and their families to save for housing, education, transportation, medical, and other expenses without jeopardizing government benefits. The federal tax-free savings and investment options are offered to encourage individuals with a disability and their families to save private funds to support health, independence, and quality of life.
The Treasury Department will update the PA ABLE website regularly with news of account openings, investment options, and account enrollment. Visitors are encouraged to explore the website and sign up for direct emails from the Treasury Department on PA ABLE programming. Treasury staff is also available to answer questions via phone at 1-855-529-2253, Monday – Friday, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Gaming Revenue Sets New High in 2016
The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board announced last week that gross total gaming revenue in 2016 topped $3.2 billion. While revenue from slot machines was down slightly in 2016 from 2015, table games revenue reached a record high in 2016. Table games revenue in 2016 was over $853 million, helping propel overall gaming revenue to the highest calendar year figure since legalized casino gaming began in Pennsylvania in 2006 at $3,213,422,178, a 1.5% increase over 2015. It also marked the sixth straight calendar year in which total casino revenue topped $3 billion.
Tax revenue in 2016 from the combined play of slot machines and table games was over $1.38 billion. Table games in Pennsylvania are taxed at 14 percent with the majority of that revenue directed into the state’s General Fund and the remaining funds directed to local governments. Slot machines are taxed at 55 percent in Pennsylvania and directed as follows: 34 percent for property tax reduction; 12 percent supporting the horse racing industry; five percent is placed in a state economic development fund; and two percent goes to local governments that host casinos.
The state’s gaming industry employs roughly 18,000 people. For more information on gaming in Pennsylvania and to read reports from the Gaming Control Board, please visit them online at www.gamingcontrolboard.pa.gov.
Did You Know…
Did you know that after 10 full years of legalized casino gaming in Pennsylvania that total gross revenue totals nearly $26 billion and revenue returned to the state in the form of taxes and license fees is approximately $13.3 billion?
ALCOSAN Clean Water Assistance Fund
The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN) has launched its Clean Water Assistance Fund, which will help low-income families and individuals pay their ALCOSAN bills. ALCOSAN has committed nearly one million dollars to this vital customer assistance program for qualifying residents in the 83 municipalities that make up the authority’s service area.
The fund will provide a $30 credit every three months to homeowners as well as tenants who have accounts in their own names for sewage service. To be eligible, applicants must meet income limits set by the federal government. Currently, that means that a family of four earning $36,450 or less per year would be eligible. The authority’s board of directors created the fund to make sure low-income residents have access to adequate wastewater services for their homes.
The fund is being administered for ALCOSAN by Dollar Energy Fund, Inc., which partners with dozens of local social service agencies to process applications. They are taken in person and applicants must provide a copy of their water/sewage bill, Social Security numbers for all members of their household, and proof of the household’s monthly income. In most cases residents should call in advance for an appointment.
ALCOSAN is hosting two public information meetings on this program today. The first is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. at ALCOSAN’s O&M Building Auditorium, located at 3300 Preble Avenue. There is also a public information meeting at 6:30 p.m. in the Gold Room at the Allegheny County Courthouse. The 1:30 p.m. meeting will also be streamed live at www.alcosan.org.
For more information on this program, including eligibility, participating agencies, and a program fact sheet, please visit www.alcosan.org.
Dormont Library Workshops
Dormont Library has recently launched two new programs. The first is a Resume and Cover Letter Workshop presented by Keith Gillogly and Brittany Page. This workshop is scheduled for Saturdays at noon. Keith and Brittany will work one-on-one with individuals to show them how to develop and design a sharp, competitive resume or cover letter. Those with resumes and cover letters already established are also welcome to work with instructors in order to review and correct any underlying issue they may have. Registration is required for this program. There is a limit to two students per class. Make sure to bring a flash drive and any written work when attending.
The library is also presenting a Writers’ Salon open to adults 18 and older every Saturday in January and February. This program is designed to allow guests to share ideas and push their creativity to the limit in a self-guided, fun, and relaxed environment. Registration is required for this program and there is a limit to 20 people.
To register for these two programs or for more information, please contact the library at email@example.com or 412-531-8754.
According to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition, more than 23 million Americans, including 6.5 million children, live in food deserts – areas that are more than a mile away from a supermarket.
Offices of State Senator Wayne D. Fontana
| Brookline District
932 Brookline Blvd.
Pittsburgh, PA 15226
Weekdays – 9 am – 5 pm
543 Main Capitol |
Harrisburg, PA 17120
Weekdays – 8:30 am – 5 pm
524 Pine Hollow Road
Weekdays – 10 am – 4 pm
| Beechview Satellite
1660 Broadway Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15216
|Northside (Mobile Office)
Carnegie Library |
1230 Federal Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15212