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Senator Fontana visited a Pre-K classroom at St. John’s Lutheran Church of Highland in Carnegie where he had an opportunity to tour their site, meet the kids and read them a story.

Senator Fontana visited a Pre-K classroom at St. John’s Lutheran Church of Highland in Carnegie where he had an opportunity to tour their site, meet the kids and read them a story. The children, aged from 3-5 years old, presented the Senator with a poster thanking him for visiting and reading to them.

Budget 2011-12: Transportation Funding

During the Governor’s budget address, many people from Western Pennsylvania listened to his proposal and waited to hear how transportation funding would be addressed. The simple answer is that it was not.

While his address talked about the road to limited government, it did not talk about the road to any other place in Pennsylvania – or the problems with those roads. That is disappointing in so many ways. The PA Transportation Advisory Committee has stated that $3 billion is needed to address PA’s annual unmet transportation funding needs.

Essentially, this year’s budget maintains the status quo on transportation funds. While the stimulus is gone and gasoline consumption is down (and therefore, the liquid fuel taxes are down as well), this budget ignores the needs of our highways and bridges. In the proposed budget, $890 million is to be used on PA’s highways for repair, resurfacing and reconstruction. Approximately 300 structurally deficient bridges will be replaced and 210 bridges will be preserved – both of which are significant decreases over what has been done in the prior two fiscal years. The federal government’s rejection of the I-80 tolling plan also leaves a $300 million hole of revenues that would have been dedicated for highway and bridge improvements from Act 44.

Governor Corbett expects an additional $6.75 million in revenue for the Motor License Fund through the passage of legislation that will allow the fund to retain 100% of vehicle fine revenue generated in municipalities where the State Police serve as the primary police force. This has been a controversial issue in the past because municipalities that rely upon the State Police for their police service do not provide any revenues for that support, while municipalities that have their own police force or participate in a regional police force are paying for their own police service and subsidizing police service to those other municipalities. At this point, we have not yet seen draft legislation or even any detail on the proposal.

The budget also doesn’t address whether the Commonwealth will continue to see the amount of funds it has in the past for federal highways. The Federal Highway Trust Fund collects 18.4 cents of a federal gas tax and 24.4 cents on a gallon of diesel fuel. That money is then allocated to states based on a specific formula. In the past three years, however, the amount of money committed from the fund exceeds the amount of money in it and so Congress has put money in from the general fund. It is not certain how long this will, or can, continue.

Mass Transit is always the hot-button issue in Allegheny County. The Public Transportation Trust fund is flat funded at $250 million in the Governor’s proposal. Although we do not yet know what the revenue figures will be for the Port Authority, we know that it will not be an increase. Operating grants to mass transit are determined by a base allocation and then supplemented by a formula based on total passengers, senior passengers, revenue vehicle miles and revenue vehicle hours. Eventually, transit agencies will be required to collect a local match of 15% of the state grant to receive operating assistance. There are also three capital assistance programs for mass transit – the Asset Improvement Program, the Capital Improvements Program, and the New Initiatives Program. The total from each of these sources to the Port Authority was $238,938,088 in the last fiscal year. Pennsylvania currently provides 63% of the Port Authority's budget.

I think that it is unlikely that the amount of funding for the Port Authority will change during the budget negotiations. The authority has been provided with one-time funds on several occasions. Just this past fall, I and other members of the Allegheny County delegation in the General Assembly lobbied the Governor to help sustain mass transit in Allegheny County. Because of our actions, the Governor identified $45 million in unused economic development funds that were directed to the Port Authority.

The state has provided substantial funding to mass transit across the state, but the Port Authority's legacy costs are continuing to drive this issue. The post-retirement benefits for which the authority is responsible (specifically health care) have risen at an annual rate of 21.8%. They must come up with a solution, locally, to address that cost. The local match is funded by Allegheny County's drink and car rental taxes. In peer cities across the country, only Baltimore and Salt Lake City provide less local funding to their transit than Allegheny County does - and Baltimore's system is actually operated by the state of Maryland. In areas where constituents are less reliant on mass transit, their Senators and Representatives would much rather put additional money into roads and bridges in their communities.

As you know, Governor Corbett ran on a platform of less government and less spending. He signed a "No Tax Pledge" which also includes no new fees. With that in mind, it is doubtful that the transportation budget will see any increases at all. If you hope to change that position, the Governor needs to understand and note your position on addressing the transportation infrastructure needs of our community, including mass transit, in order to effect change. Contact him today.

PA Works

Each week, I have been providing information to you on the PA Works program and the proposals that the Senate Democrats have put forward to focus on jobs and improving our economy. Our fourth component is focused on Pennsylvania’s reputation as a leader in clean and green energy. Our prior investments, coupled with the efforts of our world-class educational institutions, have positioned Pennsylvania at the forefront of many emerging energy sectors.

There are five key pieces to the Clean & Green Energy piece of this proposal. The first is an amendment of the High Performance Building Program. Act 1 of 2008 (Special Session), the Alternative Energy Investment Act, created a $25 million program to encourage the construction of green buildings and the renovation of existing buildings into green buildings. Unfortunately, due to how restrictive the program guidelines are, it has been vastly underutilized and money remains untouched in the fund. Legislation being proposed by the Senate Democrats would expand the program to allow all businesses to be eligible for funding and to allow businesses to use funds for construction or renovation of a high performance building for any business use.

The second piece of the proposal includes the introduction of two separate bills that are addressing the Marcellus shale industry in Pennsylvania which has generated many good-paying, family-sustaining jobs. Senate Democrats want to promote the burgeoning industry while at the same time protecting Pennsylvania’s taxpayers and environment. The first bill would propose enacting a comprehensive Marcellus Shale Safety Plan to provide important environmental protections to allow drilling to proceed safely. The second bill would propose assessing a fair and reasonable tax or impact fee on the Marcellus shale drilling industry to provide revenue for mitigating local community impacts, for environmental programs, and for Commonwealth tax payers.

The third piece of the proposal focuses not on legislation, but in working cooperatively to build synergies between educational institutions, government and clean energy industries. Pennsylvania’s higher education institutions are some of the best in the world and their partnership with energy industry research and development efforts is important. This Spring, Senate Democrats will announce plans for a Clean & Green Energy Summit where representatives of our major academic research institutions, energy industry leaders, and state and local economic development officials can exchange ideas and chart a course to make the necessary investments to grow our emerging energy industry sectors.

The fourth piece is the expansion of the use of Energy Savings Contracts Investment Plans. Legislation being proposed would develop new financial incentives for smaller municipalities and rural communities to make energy efficiency investments through Energy Saving Contracts that will finance improvements through future utility savings.

The fifth, and final piece, of the Clean & Green Energy component of PA Works is focused on the supply chains for solar and natural gas. A proposed bill would use the Industrial Resource Center network to enhance Marcellus shale and solar investment opportunities by modeling it after the successful wind energy initiative already established.

As I noted last week, The Senate Democrat Policy Committee is beginning to plan and hold hearings throughout the Commonwealth on the PA Works plan. In addition to providing more information in future editions of News & Views on the remaining two components of the plan, I will also be providing information on hearings planned for our region. While not all of the details have been worked out, the first will be a Thursday, April 28th hearing and Town Hall meeting on the Marcellus shale issue. As more information and details are provided, I will share that information with you.

LIHEAP Deadline Extended

Pennsylvania’s Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) has been extended an additional two weeks. This will give eligible households extra time to seek help paying their winter heating bills. The program, which is administered through the Department of Public Welfare, was originally set to end March 31st but has been extended through April 15th. LIHEAP helps low income families pay their heating bills through home heating energy assistance grants and crisis grants. The fastest way to apply and check the status of your application is through the state’s COMPASS website. Applicants can also call the LIHEAP hotline at 1-866-857-7095. Grants are provided based on household income, family size, type of heating fuel and region. For more information on eligibility requirements, visit the Department of Public Welfare website.

Learn About Local Foods

Interested in learning more about the benefits of eating local food? The 5th Annual Farm to Table Conference will teach consumers how to eat healthy and local all year round. The conference is being held this Friday and Saturday (March 25th and 26th) from 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Downtown Pittsburgh. It will feature 75 farmers market and health vendors, live cooking demonstrations, special guest speakers, activities for kids, samples of local food, beer and wine and the opportunity to purchase local food. The conference will showcase vendors throughout the Western Pennsylvania region. For ticket information and a schedule of speakers, demonstrations and activities, visit the Farm to Table Pittsburgh event website.

Around the District

As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I will be spending much of March in Harrisburg going through budget hearings. They began this past week with hearings with the Budget Office, the State Related Universities and the Treasury Department on Wednesday. I also had the opportunity to meet with Brian Duke, the nominee for the Secretary of Aging, and to talk with him about his vision for the Department and how it impacts Allegheny County.

Thursday’s budget hearings included the Department of General Services, the Public Utility Commission and the Insurance Department. Much of the discussion relating to Insurance deal with the population that now has lost coverage with the termination of the adultBasic program and what can be done to address the issue. Although the Commissioner did not have any solutions, several of my colleagues continue to introduce legislation with proposals and we each remain a strong advocate of the program and the need to address this group of uninsured in our Commonwealth. Thursday also included a PHEAA Board Meeting where we began to talk about the proposed cuts facing the agency and how that will impact the students who rely on the financial aid provided.

On Thursday evening, I returned to Pittsburgh in time to attend the Char-West Council of Governments Board Meeting where I had the opportunity to present the organization with a $25,000 ceremonial check for the purchase of equipment for the COG’s shared municipal services program. I am glad that I was able to support this worthwhile program.

On Friday morning, I had the pleasure of meeting a dozen or so children from St. John’s Lutheran Church of Highland’s pre-school program. A participant in Pre-K Counts, the program serves children aged 3 to 5 years old, and is based on the quality components adopted for pre-kindergarten children by the State Board of Education. By increasing access to quality pre-K for children and families throughout the Commonwealth, particularly in at-risk communities, the program also focuses on children’s early learning by sharing resources to improve quality and coordinate early learning experiences.

Comcast Newsmakers On Friday afternoon, I got the opportunity to tape an edition of Comcast Newsmakers with Tonia Caruso in which we talked about the Governor’s budget proposal and its impact on our region. You can catch the segment on your local cable stations, or view it here.

Budget hearings resumed yesterday with visits by SERS/PSERS, the Office of Attorney General and the Department of Military & Veterans Affairs. Today’s hearings include the PA Liquor Control Board, the PA State Police and the Department of Conservation & Natural Resources.

Fontana Fact

Did you know the Burke Building in Downtown Pittsburgh is the oldest building in the city designed by an architect? The building, which is located on Fourth Avenue, survived the Great Fire of 1845. It was built nearly a decade earlier in 1836 and was designed by John Chislett, Pittsburgh’s first professional architect.

Offices of State Senator Wayne D. Fontana