My Legislative Accomplishments During the 2015-16 Session
With the end of another legislative session, I wanted to provide an update on some of the major initiatives I supported that were approved during the last session. As always, there is so much more work to be done to enrich and improve the lives of Pennsylvanians and I look forward to working on the issues that matter most to the constituents, communities and organizations that I represent in the upcoming legislative session.
Education and Fixing Schools
I am particularly proud that I was a part of providing over $250 million in increased funding for the commonwealth’s Pre-K through Grade 12 public schools for this upcoming school year. This places school funding at an historical high of $5.9 billion – and actually exceeds the level of education dollars distributed during the federal stimulus funding years.
At the same time, understanding how many students across Pennsylvania and their families rely on Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program funding for their schooling, I was pleased to vote in favor of Act 86 which increased the amount of available tax credits for this program from $100 million to $125 million for the upcoming fiscal year.
A significant achievement for schools this year was the passage of Act 35 of 2016. This created a new Basic Education Funding Commission formula that more fairly distributes money to school districts based on their unique needs and takes into account such factors as the number of students in poverty, the district's wealth and ability to raise revenue and the number of students who speak English or attend charter schools.
Act 1 of 2016 was another big win for Pennsylvania students and schools. This law temporarily delays the Keystone Exams until 2018-19. The Keystone Exams are standardized tests high school students must pass in order to graduate but have been plagued by concerns since their inception. The law gives the Legislature additional time to resolve some of the unanticipated consequences of the exams including how to effectively administer and fund the project-based assessment for the students who do not pass the exams.
I was also pleased that during budget negotiations, my Senate Bill 322 became a part of Act 86.
Public school districts are now required to post additional policies and information on their websites thanks to my legislation.
Protecting Our Children
While on the topic of children, in 2014, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed my Act 44 that did away with the separate reporting requirement for schools and mandates that suspected child abuse be reported directly to the Department of Public Welfare’s Childline. The Legislature also passed and I supported several more laws that year that strengthened the state’s child abuse laws and reporting standards.
In September 2016, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services reported that state officials logged 40,590 cases of suspected child abuse, which was an increase of 11,317 from 2014. Although this increase in reports of child abuse is a disturbing reality, I am pleased that legislation I authored can still be credited with effectiveness and success of getting help and preventing death or near-death incidents for innocent children.
At the same time, we need to keep Pennsylvania’s kids healthy. For nearly 25 years, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) has offered no-cost or low-cost health care coverage for children under the age of 18 whose parents make too much to qualify for Medicaid but cannot afford private insurance. With the closing of 2015, I voted in support of Act 84 which reauthorizes and extends the life of the CHIP until December 31, 2017. CHIP was slated to expire at the end of 2015 that would have resulted in over 150,000 children losing their insurance coverage.
Higher Education Affordability
Serving as vice chairman of the board of directors for the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA) for several years now, I am proud to be a part of one of the nation’s leading student aid organizations. It has been a very rewarding experience to see the impact this agency has had on the financial security on the commonwealth’s students and I look forward to continuing to inform students and their families about the opportunities PHEAA can provide them.
When I am out and about, I often hear from our older population that more laws and programs need to be implemented to keep seniors in their homes. I was happy to support Act 20 of 2016, the Caregiver, Advice, Record, Enable (CARE) Act, because family caregivers currently assisting older adults at home will be provided with essential support on the individual’s recovery plan once released from the hospital, reducing the likelihood of costly hospital readmission. It has been estimated that more than 1.6 million family caregivers will be positively affected by this new common sense law.
I would also like to point out my support for Act 64 of 2015 that creates the Long-term Care Council within the Department of Aging. The Council is tasked with making recommendations on regulations, licensure, financing or other responsibilities of departments or agencies relating to long-term care.
To keep seniors in their homes longer, I introduced Senate Bills 1214 and 1215 that would implement a property tax rebate for the baby boomer generation. To qualify for a rebate, an individual must be a Pennsylvania resident who is 66 years and older, whose income is $50,000 and under, and who has lived in their home for 10 years or more.
Creating Jobs Through Tax Credits
The state’s film tax credit program is an economic gift that continues to give. This incentive has attracted film and television projects throughout the commonwealth and has pumped over $2 billion directly into Pennsylvania’s economy since the program’s inception. It has been estimated that each dollar invested in the film tax credit program generates approximately seven times that amount in economic impact. The tax credit program is also credited with creating 19,000 jobs and sustaining thousands more. I introduced Senate Bill 218 that would increase the Film Production Tax Credit from $60 million to $125 million. During budget negotiations, I was influential in getting the General Assembly to agree to make the maximum available tax credits available for this upcoming fiscal year to $65 million!
On the same note, I introduced Senate Bill 219 that would allow for the recapture of approved unused Film Production Tax Credits from the previous year. Previously, the state Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) was not authorized to access unused approved film tax credits and award them to another production unless the credits were from the same fiscal year. My proposal was incorporated into the budget bills for this upcoming fiscal year that will provide flexibility so that unused credits can now be awarded to new productions.
Another tax credit I successfully negotiated is the Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit.
In 1997, the Pennsylvania General Assembly created this tax credit to promote competition among businesses to expand research and create jobs, particularly in technological or scientific nature. Although the Legislature passed an act in 2012 to make the R&D Tax Credit permanent, an expiration date was left in place with the tax credit ending in 2015.
I introduced Senate Bill 1278 that would reauthorize the program as well as make it permanent which too became a part of the budget bills.
Lastly, I authored Senate Bill 673 that would recapitalize the very successful Business in Our Sites which is an infrastructure investment program designed to create shovel ready sites for new development. What has been signed into law under Act 85 recapitalizes the program by transferring $75 million from the state’s “First Industries” and “Building PA” programs. Because of my legislation, not only will jobs be created by leveraging new private investment but also saying the commonwealth money at the same time.
For the past few years, I have stood and participated with members of my caucus in the “10 Days of Action for $10.10” that reaffirmed my stance that the time is now to invest in the hard workers of Pennsylvania and make minimum wage a living wage. The commonwealth has not seen a significant increase in the minimum wage for some time and it currently resides at the federal minimum level of $7.25. Overall, 29 states and Washington D.C. have a higher minimum wage than Pennsylvania’s. For this upcoming year, I will continue to support and remain an outspoken advocate for an increase in minimum wage.
Access for Voters
During the 2013-14 session, I co-sponsored and supported SB 37 which would have allowed individuals qualified to register to vote in Pennsylvania to submit their registration application electronically. Unfortunately, the legislation was never voted on by the House of Representatives.
I was very pleased when Governor Wolf announced that starting in September 2015, residents of the commonwealth would be able to register to vote online as well as allow current registered voters to more easily make updates to their voter record, such as a change of name, address or party affiliation and even request assistance at the polling place. Clearly this move for our state was successful with the Department of State reporting in October 2016 that nearly 900,000 Pennsylvanians registered or updated their voter registration online since the governor’s announcement.
Always looking for a way to make voting more convenient and improve all citizens’ access to the polls, I introduced Senate Bill 255 which would allow early voting in Pennsylvania. Specifically, my legislation would grant voters the ability to cast their ballot up to 15 days before Election Day at designated sites established by the county board of elections. These geographically located sites would be required to be open eight hours daily and on at least one weekend day, with votes not tabulated until Election Day.
Since SB 255 lacked any legislative movement during the 2015-16 session, in November I held a hearing in Pittsburgh to get the community’s feedback as well as from stakeholders who are involved with the voting process. Now that we have started the conversation, I look forward to reintroducing this bill in January with some of the suggested changes.
Assisting and Protecting Homeowners
Serving as Democratic Chair of the Senate Urban Affairs and Housing Committee, I was at the forefront of passing critical legislation that advocated for current and future homeowners. One bill that comes to mind is what became Act 6 of 2015. Coal mining has played a major role in the Pittsburgh region over the past 200 years. In fact, today more than 1 million homes sit above abandoned mines which can sometimes be the cause of sinkholes. For this reason, Pennsylvania has the second-highest rate of sinkholes in the nation. Knowing how costly it can be for a homeowner to repair and stabilize a house and property after it has succumb to a sinkhole, Act 6 was passed that requires a homeowner to list the presence of sinkhole(s) and the responsibility of storm water facilities that may be on one’s property when they fill out their property disclosure statement.
Allegheny County’s aging infrastructure has made the topic of sewer laterals one I often hear about from my constituents. For that reason I wrote Senate Bill 289 that would allow municipalities and municipal authorities to make public funds available to repair or replace broken laterals on private property when the leaks pose a threat to the public health or safety.
SB 289 unanimously passed the Senate. However, the House of Representatives did not make this a priority before they adjourned for the 2015-16 session. I will diligently work in the new year on trying to get this legislation to reach the governor’s desk.
I also authored Senate Bill 20 which is aimed at protecting potential homebuyers. The primary source of childhood lead poisoning in Pennsylvania continues to be exposure to lead-based paint, in the form of chips and dust, found in homes with paint from before its 1978 ban according to the state Department of Health. Congress passed the Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act of 1992, also known as Title X, to protect families from exposure to lead from paint, dust, and soil by requiring the disclosure of known information before the sale or lease of most housing built before 1978. However, this is not a part of the required contents under Pennsylvania law regarding property disclosure statements. SB 20 would simply add this into state statute.
At the same time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 10 to 20 percent of human exposure to lead comes from drinking water. Lead is rarely found in the source of public water, rather it enters tap water through the corrosion of a home’s plumbing materials. Allegheny County banned the use of lead pipes in plumbing in 1969. According to census data, about 71 percent of homes in Allegheny County were built before the County banned lead pipes. Even more alarming are homes built before 1988 are more likely to have lead solder since the County did not ban the use of this metal alloy until then. But it’s important to keep in mind that newer homes still may be at risk. SB 20 would require the disclosure of lead in a home’s water as well.
Investing in the Health of the Community
One of my proudest moments during this legislative session was voting in support of legalizing medical marijuana. What eventually became Act 16 of 2016 saw many years of debate and compromise and I was happy to finally see some relief will be given to those 200,000 suffering residents and their families.
Recently, I highlighted the five new laws (Acts 122-126) that have been passed that helps address the epidemic of overdose deaths from prescription painkillers and opioid abuse. I am hopeful that this is just the beginning of finding solutions towards this crisis.
I was also pleased to play a fundamental part of securing a $750,000 increase in funding for the State Food Purchase Program. For several years now I have asked my caucus leaders for a larger allocation towards this program that helps the food insecure. No family should ever have to make the choice between purchasing food or other basic necessities like paying for utilities, housing, transportation or medical costs. And until we can pass a state law increasing the minimum wage, the resource that many of our residents are forced to turn to for access to food is through the State’s Food Purchasing Program (SFPP).
Reforming the ICA
In late 2015, I called for the disbandment of the Pittsburgh Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (ICA) and to restore the power to local taxpayers’ elected leaders. Established in 2004 by state lawmakers under Act 11 to assist Pittsburgh through tough financial times and possible bankruptcy, I felt that our city had proven itself through an amazing economy recovery. Under state law, this secondary oversight authority was supposed to end after seven years if Pittsburgh reached solid financial footing.
My views were further proven when Pennsylvania’s Auditor General Eugene DePasquale issued a thorough report that underscored the fact that ICA had outlived its purpose.
In the meantime, I teamed up with Senators Costa and Vulakovich and authored what became Act 99 of 2016 that takes immediate steps to reform the agency. Specifically, the new law:
- Requires greater transparency at the authority and record keeping that meets the standards of other state agencies;
- Creates a records retention policy that is consistent with the policy of the governor’s Office of Administration and retains financial information for a minimum of four years and tax information, payroll and audits for seven years;
- Provides a formal process for determining the use and distribution of gaming revenues for Pittsburgh; and
- Requires the agency to maintain a publicly-accessible website to include complete financial records, budgets and contracts.
I was pleased when this bill was signed into law because I feel it provides clear accountability standards and procedures that will move both the authority and the city forward.
The Future of Transportation in Pittsburgh and the Surrounding Areas
The Pittsburgh region saw a major win this year with passage of Act 164 that regulates “Transportation Network Companies” (TNCs), like Uber and Lyft, which will allow them to permanently operate in Pennsylvania. TNCs provide an alternative to traditional taxi service through a smart phone application that connects drivers with passengers.
When Uber and Lyft came into Pittsburgh in 2014, I was at the forefront of introducing legislation to regulate TNC’s in Pennsylvania. Because this new law contains most of the language of my Senate Bill 447, I was happy to support passage.
And while I am on the topic of transportation, another innovative industry has moved into my district in what are known as autonomous vehicles. Autonomous vehicles have the capabilities to be self-driving through the use of a series of cameras, lasers, and computers that view and analyze everything around it. These specialty cars can follow a pre-set route, abide by speed limits and traffic signals since they are able to brake and accelerate as conditions require and basically predict what another car beside or near it next steps are.
Since current law does not address driverless-vehicles, a bipartisan group of legislators, including myself, introduced SB 1268 that would allow the testing of autonomous vehicles on Pennsylvania roadways after certain conditions have been met. However, in the meantime, there have been significant advancements by PennDOT’s Autonomous Vehicle Task Force, the long-awaited issuance of the federal automated vehicle policy by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Uber’s legal testing of these vehicles in the Pittsburgh region that has forced us to redraft the legislation. For this reason, the legislation is now Senate Bill 1412 with fitting changes. We feel that this new bill will help us put into place policies to make Pennsylvania a top competitor for this industry to remain in the commonwealth.
Heroin & Opiate Awareness Events
Heroin and opioid-related overdoses are the leading causes of accidental deaths, killing more Pennsylvanians than traffic accidents. Right here in Allegheny County there were 422 accidental overdoses in 2015 alone. This epidemic crosses all social, geographic and political lines, killing seven Pennsylvanians each day.
I have joined Representative Dan Deasy in hosting Community Awareness Town Hall meetings to discuss ways to combat this epidemic. The first meeting took place yesterday in Crafton with the next meeting scheduled for next Wednesday, Dec. 14 in Beechview at the St. Catherine Siena Church, located at 1810 Belasco Avenue. The meeting begins at 6 p.m. Presentations will be made by a panel of experts and will be followed by a question-and-answer session. Expert panelists will include representatives from: Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office; Allegheny County District Attorney’s office; Allegheny County Sheriff’s office; Gateway Rehabilitation; local District Magistrates; local law enforcement; Allegheny County Department of Human Services; and more.
Attendees can also bring unwanted or unused prescription medication to this event and the medication will be collected and safely disposed of by the Allegheny County Sheriff’s office as part of their Project D.U.M.P. initiative.
Addressing the Heroin Crisis
Lawrenceville United, Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, and the Bloomfield Development Corporation together are hosting a community meeting tonight that seeks to address the ongoing heroin crisis. The event is scheduled for 6 – 8 p.m. at the Persad Center, located at 5301 Butler Street. Dinner and childcare will be provided free of charge. Anyone planning to attend is asked to R.S.V.P. to 412-802-7220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The event features a resource fair with local service providers, an expert panel Q & A session and information and training on how to intervene in the case of an overdose. Attendees can also bring any unwanted or expired medications that will be safely disposed of by the Allegheny County Sheriff’s office.
Did You Know…
Did you know that in 2016 alone there have been 48 known cases of heroin overdoses in the Lawrenceville, Garfield and Bloomfield neighborhoods?
Reminder - Property Tax/Rent Rebate Program
I want to remind everyone that the deadline to file for a rebate through the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue 2015 Property Tax/Rent Rebate program is Dec. 31. Applications are available at www.revenue.pa.gov or at my district offices and my staff would be happy to assist you in preparing your application.
The Property Tax/Rent Rebate program benefits eligible Pennsylvanians age 65 and over; widows and widowers age 50 and over; and people with disabilities age 18 and over. Homeowners with a maximum yearly income of $35,000 and renters with a maximum yearly income of $15,000 are eligible for a rebate. Keep in mind half of Social Security income is excluded. Some applicants who previously received rebates may continue to qualify despite Social Security cost-of-living adjustments that may have pushed their income past eligibility limits.
If you have already filed an application, have not received your rebate yet and wish to check on its status, please click here or visit www.revenue.pa.gov and click on the tab “Where’s My Property Tax/Rent Rebate?” on the home page.
LIHEAP is Open
I want to remind everyone that the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services is accepting applications for this season’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). The program helps low income families pay their heating bills. You can apply and check the status of your application on the state’s COMPASS website. You can also pick up an application in my district offices or download one yourself from the DHS LIHEAP website. Completed paper applications should be returned to the Allegheny County Assistance Office, 5947 Penn Avenue, 4th Floor, Pittsburgh, PA, 15206.
Funding for LIHEAP is provided by the federal government and eligibility is based on the Federal Poverty Income Guidelines. The income limits for this season are as follows:
After your application is received you will receive a written notice explaining your eligibility and the amount of assistance you will receive. Payments are generally sent directly to a utility company or fuel provider and will be credited to your heating account. Crisis grants may also be available if you have an emergency situation and are in jeopardy of losing your heat. For more information, please contact the LIHEAP hotline at 1-866-857-7095.
PennDOT Accepting Multimodal Applications
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) is accepting applications through Dec. 16 for funding transportation improvement projects under the Multimodal Transportation Fund. Eligible applicants include municipalities, councils of governments, businesses, non-profits, economic development organizations, public transportation agencies, Transportation Management Associations, ports, rail, or freight entities.
The Multimodal Fund was created by Act 89 of 2013. Four types of projects are eligible to receive funding. They are: projects which coordinate local land use with transportation assets to enhance existing communities; projects related to streetscapes, lighting, sidewalk enhancement and pedestrian safety; projects improving connectivity or utilization of existing transportation assets; and projects related to transit-oriented development. A local match of at least 30 percent is required.
For more information on PennDOT’s Multimodal Transportation Fund, please visit www.penndot.gov and click on “Multimodal Program” under the “Projects & Programs” tab.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is once again encouraging residents to test their homes for radon after recently detecting a new record-high level of radon in a home in Lehigh County. Radon, a leading cause of lung cancer, was detected at a home in Lehigh County in October at a level of 6,176 picocuries per liter (pCi/L), the highest recorded in the state. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set an action level for radon concentration in homes at 4 pCi/L. Homes testing above this level should have a radon reduction system installed.
Radon is a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas that occurs naturally through the breakdown of uranium in soil and rocks. It can enter a home through cracks in the foundation or other openings. The DEP suggests that homeowners buy a radon home test kit as the weather gets colder since the gas becomes trapped inside when doors and windows are closed. Testing is the only way to know if a home or other structure has elevated levels of radon. An easy home test kit can be purchased at hardware or home improvement stores for about $20 to $30. State-certified testing companies can also be hired.
If a level above 4 pCi/L is found, a radon mitigation, or reduction, system should be installed. This is essentially a pipe with a fan to suction the gas from the ground and discharge it above the roofline, where the radon is dispersed. DEP recommends that home builders install radon reduction systems during construction.
DEP certifies all radon testers, mitigators, and laboratories doing business in the state, to ensure reliable results. For more information, including information on interpreting radon test results and finding a Pennsylvania-certified radon contractor, please visit the DEP Radon Division website by clicking here or calling 1-800-23-RADON.
Diversity & Veteran Career Fair
Duquesne Light is holding a career fair to increase workforce diversity and support the hiring of veterans. Individuals will have the opportunity to learn about the company and explore available positions. Business representatives from Operations, Engineering, Customer Service, Corporate Services, and Information Technology will be available for questions and networking with attendees. This career fair is scheduled for this Wednesday, Dec. 8 from 5 – 7 p.m. at the Westin Hotel, located at 1000 Penn Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh. For more information on the career fair and available positions, please visit www.duquesnelight.com/careers and apply to the “Diversity and Veteran On-Site Career Fair.”
Duquesne Light also offers an internship program in a variety of areas including: engineering; business; information technology; vegetation management; and security management. Internships are full-time and held during the summer semester and are paid positions. Candidates must be full-time, degree-seeking students enrolled in an accredited college or university and have completed their sophomore year. Candidates must also be in good academic standing and be willing to work the required schedule as defined in the job description. Any student interested in applying can visit www.duquesnelight.com/careers and click the “View Jobs” tab to explore current internship opportunities.
Old Allegheny Victorian Christmas House Tour
The Allegheny West Civic Council is hosting the 35th annual Old Allegheny Victorian Christmas House Tour this Friday and Saturday. This popular guided tour features lovingly restored Victorian homes plus the historic Calvary United Methodist Church, famous for its beautiful Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass windows. Also, housed in Holmes Hall, guests can visit one of the world’s largest toy train museums – a private collection of hundreds of colorful train sets from the early 20th century – many rolling through enchanting miniature villages.
These guided tours afford a rare opportunity to glimpse a by-gone era and experience the warmth of the season in a truly “old fashioned” style. Most homes in Allegheny West are over 100 years old and Victorian in architectural style. Lavishly decorated for the holidays, they recall the late 19th century birth of the traditional American Christmas, elaborately decorated mantels, towering Christmas trees and pine, holly and mistletoe on stairs and chandeliers.
All tours will originate from Calvary United Methodist Church, located on the corner of Allegheny and Beech Avenues in the Allegheny West Historic District. Allegheny West is located just west of the Aviary and West Park and north of the stadiums on the North Shore. Free parking is available throughout the neighborhood and in select CCAC parking lots.
Tours will be scheduled at 12-minute intervals between 5 – 8 p.m. on Friday and 10 a.m. – 8 p.m. on Saturday. Reservations are required. For more information on the Tour please visit http://alleghenywest.org/tour/old-allegheny-victorian-christmas-house-tour/. To purchase tickets please call 1-888-718-4253 or visit https://www.showclix.com/event/OldAllegheny2016.
Tomorrow is the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor which led to the United States’ entry into World War II. More than 900,000 Pennsylvanians served during World War II and more than 31 percent of all steel produced during the War was produced in Pennsylvania. The Southwestern Pennsylvania World War II Memorial, located on Pittsburgh’s North Shore, does a fabulous job of telling the story of Pittsburgh’s contribution to the war effort and honoring the brave men and women who served.
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