World Boxing Council light heavyweight Champion Bernard Hopkins made a visit to the State Senate this past Wednesday. Shown here with Senator Fontana, Mr. Hopkins spoke with the Senate about understanding the impacts of your decisions on lives. Hopkins is a Philadelphia native who overcame life in the Raymond Rosen project and incarceration by dedicating his life to boxing. Having defended a world middleweight title for a record 20 times, he is considered one of the greatest middleweights of all time. On May 21, 2011, Hopkins became the oldest fighter to capture a significant belt when, at 46, he toppled Jean Pascal, 18 years his junior, by unanimous decision.
Budget Transparency? I Can’t See It!
Since I was elected six years ago, I have been in the minority in the Senate. There are certain things that you come to expect when in the minority – that you will have to fight twice as hard to have legislation considered, even when it is good legislation; that you will have to search for new and creative ways for your voice – the voice of your constituents – to be heard; that you will have to be proactive, rather than reactive; and that you will have to work together to be able to achieve accomplishments in your district. The one thing that I did not expect was to be completely shut out of the budget process – yet for the first time in my six years, that is exactly what has happened.
Some may say that it is something we should have expected – the state budget process has typically been rank-and-file members waiting while a small group of leaders hammer out an agreement. In fact, I have written about my frustration over just that fact in the past. The difference has been that during that process, our caucus leaders were at least at the table and information on what was being discussed – including detail on what had been agreed to and what was still being negotiated – did come back to us through those leaders.
I listened with great care to Governor Corbett’s inaugural address this past January. While I may disagree with some of his philosophies and decisions, I was comforted to hear his focus:
“We must act to renew the people’s trust in government. We must restore transparency, accountability and fiscal discipline. But we will move forward with government and legislative reform because, without it, there is no good government. We need good government. The people now demand it. And they deserve it. We will lead the way toward a government that understands that, just as families have found a way to live within their means, it too must budget in a way that is responsible and honest, a government that has the courage to find fiscal strength in restraint, a government that shows compassion for those most in need and recognizes its citizens’ great investment, a government that must yield them a hopeful, realistic return.”
~ Governor Tom Corbett (January 18, 2011 Inaugural Address)
Yet, that has not been what has happened. The majority party has negotiated behind closed doors with no thought to transparency, or even accountability. They believe that they must only answer to their own constituents, or just the ones that voted for them, rather than to all residents of the Commonwealth. They share limited information with the news media, but little to none with their colleagues in their own Chambers. Because they control the votes, they believe that they have no responsibility beyond sharing the information with their own caucuses. We can count and we know what the result of this budget process will be, but we also respect the democratic process and expect to have proper debate and public transparency on this fiscal plan for our state.
This also applies to the myriad of bills that may be passed along with the budget – we are not talking about inconsequential issues. There are rumors that the bills being considered before summer recess could include vouchers and charter school legislation, Marcellus shale fees, substantial changes to the Public Welfare Code, distracted driving, a takeover of the City of Harrisburg and referendum exceptions for local property tax increases. None of these are items that should be taken lightly, nor should they be made part and parcel of the budget process. We should have a thoughtful and democratic debate and discussion on these items, allow community participation and be cognizant of the fact that we were elected to represent the people. Without allowing them to be part of the process, we do them a great disservice.
Thomas Jefferson remarked on the importance of transparency in government 200 years ago in a letter he wrote to Treasurer Albert Gallatin in 1802: “We might hope to see the finances as clear and intelligible as a merchant's books, so that every member of Congress, and every man of every mind in the Union should be able to comprehend them, to investigate abuses, and consequently, to control them.”
Today, transparency in government operations is no less important and is discussed at all levels of government. Voters expect that their local officials will be accountable, understanding of spending priorities and economic conditions, and act in the voters’ best interests. Our own Constitution provides that “All power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority and institute for their peace, safety and happiness.” That public awareness and understanding of government ensures stability and confidence in the government.
There are plenty of examples of how we have crafted legislation that addresses concerns from all members of the General Assembly, and their constituents. There are also plenty of ways that we can improve the process and allow a greater voice to all members – and to the residents of this great Commonwealth, independent of the legislative process. I hope that we learn from those examples, listen to our constituency, work together to provide for a better Commonwealth and be true to the vows of transparency and accountability that have been made to the residents.
The Senate Appropriations Committee meeting originally scheduled for Sunday, June 26th was postponed to 5:30 p.m. on Monday, June 27th. All amendments offered by the Senate Democrats were defeated on a party-line vote. Because the spreadsheets detailing the budget “deal” were received just prior to Monday’s meeting, there has not been much opportunity to move through them and provide detail. I have linked the General Fund spreadsheet and the School District Funding spreadsheet to this message for your reference and use.
SBDC Outreach Day
The next Small Business Development Center (SBDC) Outreach Day is being held Tuesday, July 5th to allow small business owners to get entrepreneurial assistance from a professional. Client Services Liaison John Dobransky will once again be available at my Kennedy Office (Kenmawr Plaza) between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. You can make an appointment for this or any other SBDC Outreach Day by calling John at 412-624-2290. Appointments are not required, but they are encouraged. This is a free service that allows entrepreneurs to ask questions about starting a business or improving an existing business and provides you with the expertise and resources to help you navigate obstacles to running a business. The next SBDC Outreach Day is scheduled for Tuesday, August 2nd.
Did You Know…
Did you know that a new business is opened every four hours and 25 minutes with SBDC assistance? The mission of the Pennsylvania SBDC is to grow the economy by providing entrepreneurs with the education, information and tools they need to build a successful business.
Food Bank Sponsored Farm Stands Open
Community Farm Stands are now open to the public for the 2011 season. The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank started the program in 1993 to make fresh produce available to low-income neighborhoods with limited access to grocery stores. The Farm Stands are open to anyone interested in purchasing fresh food. In addition to accepting cash, the stands accept public program benefits such as Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program issued checks and SNAP (formerly known as Food Stamps).
The Farm Stands are stocked with produce purchased directly from local farmers. The Food Bank also provides nutrition education at the stands, including cooking demonstrations and samplings. More than a dozen Farm Stands located throughout the greater Pittsburgh area operate at select times on Wednesdays and Thursdays. You can view a full schedule on the Food Bank’s website. For more information you may also call 412-460-3663, extension 216. The program runs through November 17th.
Neville Township Loses a Dear Friend
My deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Denise Moore who passed away last week at the age of 55. The Township Secretary in Neville Township for 25 years, Denise was well-known for her friendliness, her drive for the township and her positive outlook on life. Denise will be missed.
Crafton Celebrates Festival Celebrating 36th Year
The 36th annual Crafton Celebrates Festival is being held at Crafton Park from June 30th to July 4th. There will be free entertainment nightly on the stage as well as a number of other activities including a petting zoo, mini-golf, bingo, fun booth games, inflatables, food, caricature artists and crafters. The festival hours are 6 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. on June 30th and July 1st – and 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. on July 2nd, 3rd and 4th. Fireworks will begin after dark on July 4th.
Hollywood Theater Fine Art Show
Visit the Hollywood Theater at 1449 Potomac Avenue in Dormont on Saturday, July 2nd beginning at 6 p.m. to see over 50 artists show their work. It’s an evening of art, music and movies – and it benefits the Hollywood Theater!
Protecting Children from Abuse and Neglect
A website dedicated to reporting child abuse in the Commonwealth is now up and running, providing an important resource focused solely on improving the well-being of children. The Look Out for Child Abuse website makes it easier to identify and report suspected cases of child abuse. The website is a collaboration between Penn State College of Medicine, Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital and Penn State Dickinson School of Law.
The site contains a variety of resources and tools for anyone required by law to report suspected child abuse, including links to statistics, annual child abuse reports, and laws and regulations. It also features a program to help reporters complete each section of the CY-47 form, the official report for suspected child abuse. There is also plenty of helpful information for victims of child abuse.
Around the District
This past week, I had the opportunity to meet with several organizations about budget concerns, as well as their platforms and the actions they are taking to push their issues forward before the General Assembly. The Senate Transportation Committee considered my legislation to reconfigure the Port Authority Board. SB 926 would provide that, in addition to the requirement that one member of County Council be on the board, the Chief Executive would also have to appoint one member of the advisory transit council, one member to represent labor, and one member of the House and Senate. The bill was unanimously reported from committee.
The Appropriations Committee also met on Tuesday to consider four bills. During session, the Senate considered and voted on HB 148, an omnibus Liquor Code bill; SB 388, requiring dentists to carry malpractice insurance; SB 800, prohibiting more than two members of the State Race Horse Commission and the State Harness Racing Commission from being from the same county; SB 1127, prevent school directors from voting on any items other than ministerial or emergency items from October of an election year through their reorganization; and, SB 1131, legislation changing joint and several liability provisions.
On Wednesday morning, I participated in an Urban Affairs & Housing Committee hearing on SB 920 which requires the installation of Carbon Monoxide detectors in homes. It was a good hearing with a lot of positive input and I look forward to working with my colleagues to further improve the legislation. The Community, Economic & Recreational Development Committee also met to consider SB 1151 which amends the Municipalities Financial Recovery Act. The intent of the sponsor is to take over the City of Harrisburg with a 3-person, non-elected board, if it does not adopt the Act 47 plan. The legislation, however, was written much more broadly. Working with my colleagues, we were able to offer amendments to limit the scope of the bill and address other issues with the bill, but concerns remain about its impact, timing and constitutionality.
During session itself, five bills were considered: HB 385, which designates the Remember & Honor Flag as an official flag of the Commonwealth – it remembers and honors fallen members of the armed services; HB 440, which amends the Workers’ Compensation law to allow sole proprietors and partners in a partnership to voluntarily participate in the workers’ compensation program; SB 200, that creates the Safety in Youth Sports Act which requires student athletes who are exhibiting signs or symptoms of a concussion or traumatic brain injury to be removed from practice or play and cannot return until they have been cleared by an appropriate medical professional; and, finally, SB 458, that renames the Mental Health & Mental Retardation Act as the Mental Health & Intellectual Disabilities Act.
Thursday’s session was a busy one with the Senate considering nine bills before recessing. HB 143 and HB 144 both amend the Clean & Green Act to address rollback provisions related to drilling and mining on such sites; HB 312, HB 390, HB 1255 and SB 1043 were bridge or road re-namings/designations; HB 986 amends the State Lottery Law to maintain a lower rate of return to allow the Lottery flexibility to offer different types of games; SB 386 amends the County Code to provide that their governing bodies may abolish the office of jury commissioner; and, SB 1007 extends the First Industries Program through July 15, 2015. It was set to expire at the end of this month.
On Friday, session was canceled as final budget negotiations occurred and budget bills were drafted as a result of those negotiations. Our Appropriations staff was also hard at work crafting amendments to address the line items with which we have had a concern and many are expected to be offered this week. My staff ably represented me at the Elder-Ado Annual Volunteer Thank You/Appreciation Program at the McKinley Park Center on Friday afternoon.
Work continued throughout the weekend as Senate Democrats and House Democrats also worked on a proposal regarding Marcellus Shale revenue plans. Following several press reports that Senate and House Republican leaders had agreed not to include any Marcellus Shale impact fee as part of the final budget agreement, Senators Costa, Hughes and Yudichak met with House Democratic leaders to gain House support for our plan. The two caucuses held a press conference on Sunday afternoon to announce a united House and Senate Democratic plan that both caucuses would work to incorporate into any fiscal code bill that Republicans attempt to move as part of the final budget agreement.
The Smithfield Street Bridge connecting Downtown and South Side is the site of the first river crossing bridge in Pittsburgh. The Monongahela Bridge was built in 1818, destroyed in the Great Fire of 1845, and was rebuilt as a suspension bridge. The Smithfield Street Bridge has since taken its place and is a considered a National Historic Civil Engineering.
Offices of State Senator Wayne D. Fontana