Making good on a vow to City Council members, state Rep. Rosita Youngblood has steered a measure through the House that would alert state legislators to construction projects in their districts, and require public input before funds are released.
“I tried to tell them that Harrisburg was watching,” Youngblood said. “This only reinforces what I stated at City Council: Harrisburg is watching the entire process.”
The bill, which passed Monday with a 184-9 vote, is now headed to the Senate.
It would mandate that all projects slated to receive Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program funds be the subject of at least one community meeting, open to residents in the area surrounding the proposed project. It would also require the state secretary of the budget to inform legislators from that district about the project and would prohibit exiting governors from awarding RACP funds between legislative sessions.
“The process is completely lacking transparency and accountability, and does not include the needs and concerns of the citizens in the equation,” she said.
Noting the overwhelming support for the bill, Youngblood said she expected it be approved by the Senate and signed by Gov. Tom Corbett.
“The governor wants this done,” she said. “I feel pretty confident in stating that it should pass and go to the governor.”
She was unable to say exactly when that might happen, noting the General Assembly’s full calendar.
Youngblood introduced the legislation in November.
At the time, she was part of a battle with city council over plans to put a Sav-A-Lot and a dollar store in Chelten Plaza at Pulaski and Chelten avenues in Germantown. Council unanimously approved a minor change to the city’s zoning code allow the project to proceed.
The proposal, which had the backing of then-Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller, generated a firestorm of public debate and divided the neighborhood.
On paper it looked like a minor item, a change in zoning code language of just 10 words. But, it allowed developer Pat Burns to build a dollar store at the site. In 2005, in a bid to receive $3 million in RACP funds for the project, Burns said he would build a Fresh Grocer at the site — without mentioning plans for a dollar store. Then, in early 2011, he changed his plans for the $14.3 million project, angering many residents.
A petition of 3,000 signatures was presented against the proposal.
Zoning rules for the area, authored by Miller, traditionally prohibited variety stores, nail salons, and similar uses. The change critics said was a prime example of spot zoning and done for the benefit of Burns alone.
“It was a project that “smell[ed] of back room deals” said Youngblood, at the time.
Angered by the project, which has since been completed, she vowed then to bring more public scrutiny to projects receiving state money.
“This will give legislators, state reps and senators, the opportunity to know about the various projects in their community,” she said, this week. “Had the developers simply reached out to the Germantown community, most of the issues could have been resolved.”
Killer would be first person put to death in Pa. since 1999
The state of Pennsylvania hasn’t executed a prisoner since notorious serial killer Gary Heidnik was put down by lethal injection on July 6, 1999 — but that may change on Oct. 3.
On that date, Terrance Williams is scheduled to be put to death — an execution order that was signed by Governor Tom Corbett last week. Williams has run through the appeals process, but a federal public defender has petitioned a Court of Common Pleas judge to commute his death sentence to one of life in prison. The argument is that Amos Norwood, 56, the man Williams killed, sexually and physically abused him from his early teens — and the abuse was escalating. Further, Williams had been victimized sexually since he was six years old and was striking back at Norwood when he killed him. This information, argues federal community defender Shawn Nolan, was not presented to the jury who convicted and sentenced him of murder in the first degree in 1986.
“Terry’s case is unique, and Terry is deserving of mercy,” said Nolan. “We hope that those with the power to prevent this injustice will agree that Terry’s death sentence should be commuted to life without the possibility of parole. Most Pennsylvanians would agree that the death penalty is the punishment for the worst of the worst offenders, not for traumatized victims of sexual abuse who strike back at their abusers. Terry Williams’ story is one of horrific childhood sexual and physical abuse. A victim of sexual abuse since the age of 6, Terry was preyed on repeatedly by older males throughout his childhood. Born into poverty, with a violently abusive mother and no father, Terry was vulnerable and victimized by a series of predators. Deeply traumatized from the sexual and physical abuse, at the ages of 17 and 18, Terry killed two
of those predators. Terry is profoundly remorseful for these crimes.”
The complicated case goes back to June 11, 1984. On that date, Williams and Marc Draper were gambling on a street corner and lost their money. According to investigators, Williams left and later returned with $10.00 that he got from Norwood. Later Norwood drove by and Williams and Draper went with him, allegedly with the intention of taking his money. They drove to a remote location where they allegedly forced Norwood out, bound and gagged him, robbed him and then beat him to death with a tire iron and a wrench and then fled the scene. Later on, Williams, who was 21 at the time, returned and burned the body, something he had attempted to do in an earlier crime.
Four days later a child who was out walking his dog discovered the burned remains. Williams and Draper were arrested two months later. Draper made a deal with the prosecutors, and pleaded guilty to second degree murder and criminal conspiracy. Williams was found guilty of first degree murder, robbery and conspiracy on February 3, 1986. He is now at the State Correctional Institution at Greene awaiting execution.
But the murder of Norwood was an expression of Williams’ dark side, the Mr. Hyde, according to his last appeal, which was argued from December 7, 2010 to March 9, 2011. Two earlier, extremely violent crimes were used as aggravating circumstances during his trial to secure the death penalty.
“As Dr, Jekyll, Williams was a local football star, the quarterback of the Germantown High School team that won the Philadelphia Public League championship in 1982,” wrote Judge D. Brooks Smith in the appellate decision. “He was presented with the sportsman of the year award by the Philadelphia Board of Sports Officials, and he was recruited by at least eight different collegiate institutions. Nearly all of Williams' coaches and teachers described him as mild-mannered, law-abiding, and honest. In 1983, Williams graduated from Germantown High and matriculated to Cheney State College in Philadelphia. In the estimation of one of his instructors, Williams was ‘highly respected and admired by his teacher[s] and all of his classmates.’ He was not only the star of the school's football team, but also a classmate and student who showed respect for others and accepted his popularity with modesty.”
That’s not the side of his nature he displayed on December 25, 1982. Court documents and investigative reports show that on the 1982 Christmas Eve, a then 16-year old Williams broke into the home of Don and Hilda Dorfman. Williams allegedly awoke Hilda Dorfman, 64, by pressing a .22 caliber Winchester rifle to her neck and covered her face with the bed sheet. Williams and an accomplice then allegedly robbed the couple and stole their car.
“He was released pending trial, however, and in January of 1984, he embarked in earnest on a crime spree that would continue for the better part of six months,” Judge Smith said in his appellate decision. “Williams' next victim was a 51-year-old man named Herbert Hamilton, an individual from whom Williams had been receiving money in exchange for sex. This relationship, like much else in Williams' life, was kept hidden from most who knew him. Hamilton apparently threatened to publicize the secret, so Williams took action, committing a murder that remained unsolved at the time he allegedly killed Norwood.
Action amounted to going to Hamilton’s home, and as the two were going to bed, Williams took out a ten-inch butcher knife and attempted to stab Hamilton. During a struggle in which Hamilton managed to take the knife, Williams took a nearby baseball bat and severely beat Hamilton before stabbing him twenty times.
“Finally, Williams drove the butcher knife through the back of Hamilton's neck until it protruded through the other side,” Judge Smith said. “He then doused Hamilton's body with kerosene and unsuccessfully attempted to set fire to it. When police officers later entered the apartment, they found Hamilton's kerosene-soaked body with the knife jammed through his neck; on the bathroom mirror, the phrase ‘I loved you’ was scrawled in toothpaste. Williams was then seventeen.”
It wasn’t until the Norwood killing that information about Williams’ connection with the Hamilton killing came out after Draper’s arrest. Nolan argues that Norwood had a sexual relationship with Williams that began when he was 13. She also said that Draper recanted his original testimony that Norwood was killed during a robbery; now he says the motive for the murder was the sexual abuse he suffered because of Norwood and the police coerced his earlier confession.
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office politely declined to comment on the case.
The large cuts to social service and education budgets that Gov. Tom Corbett included in his budget proposal could ultimately hurt the local economy, concluded a group of service providers this week after analyzing the numbers.
Not only will those cuts hurt recipients of social service benefits and students, they will force many service providers to cut employees, straining the social safety net even further.
“Organizations will have to eliminate jobs in order to survive,” said Jeff Wilush, president and CEO of Horizon House Inc., a mental health services company that serves residents in Philadelphia and the surrounding counties. “Individuals now employed will lose their jobs and be forced to return for the services they now provide.”
According to Wilush, Horizon House relies on employees to maintain its level of service, with about 75 percent of the organization’s budget going to pay its employees. When state funding falls, the first and often only place service providers have to cut back is by slashing employees.
Wilush was one of about 60 people who met Thursday with Mayor Michael Nutter and other city officials at a special PhillyStat meeting to discuss the impact of Corbett’s budget.
Under Corbett’s proposal, state spending on many social service programs has been slashed 20 percent. In addition, funding for the state’s 14 universities was cut 20 percent. The three state-related schools: Temple, Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh would see their funding cut 30 percent.
It is too early to determine exactly what the impact of the cuts will be.
In the social services area, Corbett combined six previously separate budget line items and lumped together their total funding under one heading. But, the state has not yet revealed how it will allocate those funds.
That leaves city officials and service providers guessing. But, everyone is tightening their belts.
“The staggering level of proposed cuts would literally shred to pieces the social safety net,” Nutter said.
Wilush anticipated that the eventually Corbett’s cuts would actually cost the state, counties and municipalities more money because by failing to provide services up front they would force people onto the streets and perhaps to crime leading to an increase in spending for corrections.
“The short-term gain of these cuts can only lead to higher long-term costs,” Wilush said.
It was the second year in a row that Corbett proposed substantial cuts to higher education funding. Last year he initially suggested cutting funding to state-related schools by 50 percent.
In Temple’s case, that was finally reduced to about 19 percent.
“Temple has responded by cutting millions from its operating budget, streamlining processes, eliminating redundancies and reducing administrative staff,” University president Ann Weaver Hart, who did not attend the meeting, said in a statement. “We have become leaner and more focused on a quality education.”
Over the last three years the school has trimmed $76 million from its budget. It would be impossible to maintain programs with further cuts, she said.
“The governor’s plan, however, is not one that can be met by cutting costs,” said Hart. “If approved by the General Assembly, this reduction in support will be felt by every student, parent and employee.”
The cuts come as Nutter is preparing the city’s budget, which will be unveiled on March 9.
Asked by reporters if the cuts — which total about $40 million for the city — would spur a property tax increase, Nutter said it was too soon to tell.
“Your question is tremendously premature, and we’ve had no discussion about that,” said the mayor. “We do not know at this point how, as a city, we would try to deal with the magnitude of these cuts.”
The city has raised real estate taxes the last two years as it battled its own budget woes.
In his budget address Tuesday, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett devoted much of his time to four topics bound to affect the daily lives of millions of Pennsylvanians – education funding, raising tariffs on wholesale gas, pension reform and the expansion of Medicare – and outlined how these changes, if enacted, would be for the better.
In terms of education, Corbett pledged to add billions of dollars to the education sector, even as Corbett said that under his administration, the state has invested more in public education than at any point in its history.
“It is true that we no longer have one-time federal ‘stimulus’ dollars -- money that should never have been put toward school operating costs. Yet once again this year, we will be putting a record amount of state funding into basic education, $5.5 billion dollars, starting with early childhood programs and going all the way through grade 12,” Corbett said in his address. “Pennsylvania currently spends more than $348 million dollars each year in early childhood programs. My budget reaffirms that commitment. I propose adding another $6.4 million dollars toward our Pre-K Counts and the Head Start Supplemental Assistance programs. This money gives an additional 3,200 children, and their families, access to quality full and part-day programs as well as summer kindergarten readiness programs.
“As we lay this foundation, we must also continue to expand funding for K-through-12 education,” Corbett continued. “This budget adds nearly $100 million dollars to be distributed to our school districts. That is over and above last year’s record funding levels.” This is in addition to Corbett’s $1 billion “Passport for Learning” block grant, which will be broken down into four sections.
“One is called ‘Ready by 3.’ The funds can go toward supporting and enhancing a quality kindergarten program that meets our academic standards and enhances elementary reading and mathematics through third grade. The second program acknowledges that every child learns differently at his or her own pace. When it comes to education one size does not fit all. Schools can establish customized learning plans that allow our students to learn at the pace and manner that best suits them,” Corbett said. “Science, technology, engineering and math remain critical to the continued advancement of our students, our state and our nation. That is why they comprise the third area to receive a share of this new revenue. The grant will provide funding to invest in programs and equipment that support science and math in grades six through twelve.”
Corbett said the fourth portion of the grant will go toward improving safety at public schools.
The American Federation of Teachers PA assailed Corbett’s plan as one that masks the cuts to education Corbett previously made, and accuses the governor of purposely misinforming the public.
“After two years and $1.25 billion in cuts to basic, special and higher education, the governor’s budget continues the cuts and offers false choices and empty promises that won’t stabilize school finances, improve educational opportunities or build an educated and competitive workforce,” said AFT PA Executive Vice President Rosemary Boland. “At a time when Pennsylvania needs sustainable education funding, Corbett offers little new funding and a small restricted block grant in exchange for acquiescing to his agenda of privatizing public employee pensions and selling the state’s liquor stores for private profit. A fire sale of liquor licenses and defunding school and state employee pensions are no way to finance world-class schools and colleges.
“We can afford to restore education budget cuts by making responsible choices – by closing tax loopholes, repealing corporate tax breaks and enacting a fair and competitive tax on natural gas extraction,” Boland added. “After two years of crushing reductions, it’s reprehensible that the administration continues putting privatization ahead of children and schools.”
Boland was referring to Corbett’s controversial multi-pronged approach to gas tariffs, one that would lower the at-the-pump liquid fuels tax by 17 percent while asking the state’s legislature to begin a five-year phase out of the capped tax oil and gas companies pay to the state. Those taxes, Corbett said, where initialized when the prevailing thought throughout the industry was that gas would never rise above $1.25 per gallon.
While Boland agreed with Corbett’s plan on the gas tax, many others were put off by the governor’s plan to follow through on the privatization of the state-operated liquor stores. While Corbett has said monies form the sales of such operation would go toward public education, although Corbett didn’t specify how much money would go to education.
“This latest scheme from the Governor is another example of his Administration's reluctance to commit to an education funding plan, one that takes into account accurate student data, recognizes student and district differences, and provides funding to address student needs in a transparent formula that everyone - from state legislators to local taxpayers - can see," said Education Law Center Executive Director Rhonda Brownstein. “We wanted to see how other states calculate and distribute this precious resource — education dollars — and where Pennsylvania stands," said Brownstein. “Turns out, Pennsylvania has abandoned basic budgeting practices that most states, including our neighbors, are putting to use in order to calculate and distribute state education dollars accurately, fairly, and transparently.
“We urge the Governor and the General Assembly to adopt an education funding formula that follows these common practices of accuracy, fairness, and transparency. Anything less puts the education of Pennsylvania's students at the whim of one-time payouts and political schemes."
In his address, Corbett also pledged to maintain the current level of state aid - $1.58 billion – to the state-run universities. Corbett didn’t address the contract impasse between the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and its biggest union, the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Facilities.
Corbett vowed to protect the pensions of state workers and reiterated that he will not cut any benefits to retirees; his pension reform plan, Corbett said, would provide roughly $140 million in savings that will go directly to the school districts throughout the state.
“What we need to do, going forward from this time, is to create a new 401(k)-style retirement benefit for our future employees consistent with the retirement packages currently enjoyed almost universally by private sector employees,” Corbett said. “My plan also suggests some adjustment in the way future benefits are calculated for current employees in order to maintain the solvency of our pension system and guarantee all current and future employees a worry-free retirement.”
Boland didn’t agree with Corbett’s math in terms of pension reform, saying that, in the long run, Corbett’s plan will create many more problems that it could potentially solve.
“Corbett’s pension ‘reform’ proposal is short-term thinking that creates long-term problems for teachers, librarians, nurses and other school and state employees, and, ultimately, for Pennsylvania taxpayers. The governor’s plan will not reduce any of the systems’ current $41 billion unfunded liability. In fact, it may increase the amount needed down the road to meet its obligations to retired and current workers,” Boland said. “Further, the governor has provided no details on the amount employers, school districts and the state, will contribute to the 401(k)-type plans, leaving to the imagination potential costs and potential savings.
“Teachers and other school and state employees didn’t cause the pension problem, but under the governor’s proposal current and future state employees will pay for the mistakes that others made with significantly reduced pensions.
“Teachers and school employees accept significant changes to their pensions in 2010 when the legislature passed bipartisan pension reform,” Boland added. “Act 120 is designed to do what everyone agrees needs to be done: restore healthy fund balances gradually so that the state’s pension funds will be able to meet their obligations to retirees – as they have done for the past 100 years. If Act 120 is allowed to work, it will strengthen and build a healthy pension system and provide secure and stable pensions for another 100 years.
“Corbett’s plan, on the other hand, will kick the pension funds problems down the road, leaving retirees poorer and taxpayers footing a larger bill in the future…his pension reform isn’t helping taxpayers, retirees or current employees. He should let Act 120 work.”
Corbett did win praise for his refusal to expand Medicare, going as far as to say that President Barack Obama was correct when Obama said that simply increasing the rolls will not led to a more stable system. Corbett still managed a shot at the Affordable Health Care Act, commonly referred to as “Obamacare.” States do have the choice of opting out of the program.
“We cannot afford to expand a broken system. Right now, without expansion, the cost to maintain our current Department of Public Welfare programs will increase by $400 million dollars. The main driver in that cost increase is Medicaid and long-term care.
Washington is asking us to expand Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act without any clear guidance or reasonable assurances,” Corbett said. “The federal government must authorize real flexibility and innovative reforms that empower us to make the program work for Pennsylvania.
“We also should not permit the federal government to take away millions of dollars from our hospitals as leverage to implement their one-size-fits-all policies,” Corbett continued. “At this time, without serious reforms, it would be financially unsustainable for the taxpayers, and I cannot recommend a dramatic Medicaid expansion.”
This battle continued to take a partisan tone, as Americans for Prosperity Pennsylvania State Director Jennifer Stefano backed up Corbett’s stance on Medicare.
“I applaud the Governor’s decision to join the list of states choosing not to expand the Medicaid program,” Stefano said. “I call on our state legislators to do the same. Those enrolled in Medicaid have worse health outcomes than patients that have no health insurance at all.”
Armbrister resigns, Corbett names Houstoun replacement
Denise McGregor Armbrister became the third member of the School Reform Commission to resign within a month, her resignation Wednesday coming on the heels of the departures of Chairman Robert L. Archie and Johnny Irizarry.
Not long after the ink on her resignation had dried, Gov. Tom Corbett moved to fill the vacancy with Thursday’s nomination of Feather O’Connor Houstoun.
“Feather Houstoun’s experience and depth of knowledge in public service will be a tremendous asset to help lead Philadelphia’s educational community,” Corbett said. “She understands many of the needs and challenges facing the children who attend our state’s largest public school system, and her experience running large public systems will bring a special expertise to the SRC.”
In June, Corbett named former City Solicitor Pedro Ramos as his choice to replace Archie as SRC chair.
However, Ramos is still awaiting state Senate confirmation. It is believed that Houstoun and Ramos will go through their state Senate confirmation hearings simultaneously to expedite the reformation of the SRC with its full complement of five members.
Earlier this month, Mayor Michael Nutter appointed Rutgers University-Camden Chancellor Wendell Pritchett to the SRC. He followed that up with the appointment of arts ambassador Lorene Carey. Joseph Dworetzky, whose term expires in 2014, is a gubernatorial appointment and now the longest tenured member of the Commission. He has been a member of the SRC for two years.
All of Armbrister’s children have been educated in the Philadelphia public schools, and she still has a daughter in the 11th grade in the district. In a recent phone conversation, Armbrister, who had already served four years on the SRC and would have seen her term expire in January, said she wanted to move out of the way so the governor could make an appointment and therefore move the Senate hearing ahead more quickly.
“I’m hoping this will expedite the process, that a fifth commission member will be named and the confirmation process can quickly begin,” Armbrister said. “It is complex and it is time-consuming. It is a lot of work.”
As priorities for the SRC, Armbrister mentioned the continued efforts to close the $680 million budget gap that has reduced the number of workers at headquarters by 50 percent and the number of employees district-wide by 30 percent. She touched on the huge undertaking that is the facilities master plan, a key component of the school district’s five-year strategic plan, Imagine 2014.
She also said that while the job of an SRC member is “extremely challenging work,” she did not suggest, as some have, that it should be a paid position.
“I want to say that I felt honored and humbled to take on this responsibility,” Armbrister, speaking of her tenure, said. “The work of the SRC is incredibly honorable work that, I assure you, none of the people whom I worked with took the responsibilities lightly. However, I don’t think that it should be a paid position.
“I owe a great deal of gratitude to my fellow commissioners,” Armbrister continued. “Hopefully the new and reconstituted commission can be put in place quickly and the SRC can go about the very crucial job of providing the children in the school district the best possible education. Nothing is more important than that. Nothing.”
“Feather Houstoun is one of Philadelphia’s most dedicated and accomplished public servants, and her appointment will help the SRC move forward with its difficult and critical work,” Nutter said. “While serving at the William Penn Foundation, Feather left an undeniably positive and lasting impact on the entire Philadelphia region. As a SRC member, she would be able to bring her expertise and passion to improving the lives of Philadelphia’s students.
“We look forward to the Pennsylvania Senate taking up the nominations for Pedro Ramos and Feather Houstoun,” she said. “Their quick confirmations will allow the new SRC to get on with their important work of identifying the next superintendent of the district and managing through complex budget and facilities issues.”
Houstoun, 65, is president of the William Penn Foundation. She has been the secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare under Gov. Tom Ridge; worked as the chief financial officer for SEPTA; and served as treasurer of the state of New Jersey.
The more information is revealed about the child sexual abuse scandal at Penn State, the more it becomes clear this is about more than the alleged monstrous crimes of one man.
This does not mean society in general should be blamed as some commentators have suggested. Generalized blame would let off easy the accused and the specific people who failed to act more aggressively on behalf of child abuse victims.
Penn State administration officials, officials at The Second Mile charity for at-risk children where the accuser allegedly recruited his young victims and members of law enforcement knew of allegations of child sex abuse and failed to act to protect children.
Jerry Sandusky, the former defensive coordinator for Penn State, should be back in court next month where he is charged with 40 criminal counts of molesting young boys as young as 10 between 1994 and 2007.
On Dec 7, Sandusky is due for a preliminary hearing in which a judge would determine if there’s enough evidence for prosecutors to move forward with the case.
Fortunately a new judge has been assigned to handle Sandusky’s preliminary hearing next month. The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts said Wednesday that Robert E. Scott, a senior district judge in Westmoreland County, would take over the case after Centre County court officials sought an out-of-county jurist.
The case previously had been assigned to District Judge Leslie Dutchcot, who donated to The Second Mile in 2009. She set Sandusky’s low bail at $100,000, unsecured. Dutchcot should have removed herself from hearing the case.
Sandusky’s fate will be decided in a courtroom.
However the action or inaction of several officials should also be questioned including those of Governor Corbett.
Corbett took the case on a referral from the Centre County district attorney in early 2009 while he was serving as attorney general.
The governor reportedly bristled when asked whether it was fair for people to criticize the pace of the probe.
“People that are saying that are ill-informed as to how investigations are conducted, how witnesses are developed, how backup information, corroborative information is developed, and they really don’t know what they’re talking about,” he told reporters.
The Patriot-News of Harrisburg reported Monday that only one trooper was assigned to the case after the state took it over in 2009.
Despite the governor’s objections there is a valid reason to question while his investigation took so long on such serious allegations and why only one trooper was assigned to it.
There are also many other questions to ask of other officials in how they handled the sex abuse allegations.
State Rep. Eugene DePasquale, D-York, this week called on Corbett to appoint a special investigator to look for answers that fall outside the criminal investigation. As more information becomes known, it becomes clearer that a special investigator as well as a federal investigation is needed.
HARRISBURG, Pa. — Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said Wednesday his successor, Gov. Tom Corbett, should cancel plans to deny food stamps to people deemed by the state to have too much in personal assets.
Rendell hand-delivered a three-page letter to Republican Corbett's offices that warned an asset test would be expensive to administer and harmful to the economy, particularly in poor neighborhoods where food stamps are often a major source of business for small grocery stores.
"They're not all minority, they're not all urban dwellers," Rendell said at a Capitol news conference with about a dozen state House Democrats. "They're our neighbors."
Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley said an asset test will be implemented by the Department of Public Welfare in the coming months, but the administration has not decided its dollar-value level.
In a letter to the federal government late last month, the agency said it was considering a bar on recipients who have more than $2,000 in savings or other assets subject to the rule, or more than $3,250 for people who are over 60 or disabled.
"Ed Rendell's an expert on food stamps, because during his administration the number of people on food stamps nearly doubled, from 900,000 to more than 1.7 million," Harley said.
Rendell's letter to Corbett said any potential savings would be "far less than the costs the state and our families will bear."
About a quarter of states currently impose a food stamp asset test, and Democrat Rendell eliminated Pennsylvania's test in 2008.
Food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, range in benefit levels, with the maximum for a family of four at $668 a month.
A state welfare official has said the asset-test level proposed in the letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture would cut about 2 percent of people from the rolls. -- (AP)
Philadelphia’s electorate greater in 2008
With fewer than 60 days before the November 6 election, the number of registered voters in Philadelphia is lower now than it was just before the 2008 presidential election, and voter registration numbers are lagging far behind those from a similar point in 2008. In addition, there is little evidence that Philadelphia voters who need ID to vote are applying for voter identification.
According to figures from the state Department of State, there were about 1 million registered voters in the city as of September 3. State data showed 811,808 Democrats, 129,369 Republicans, 76,903 with no party affiliation and 21,442 from all other parties combined.
That compares to figures from 2008 when state figures showed a total of 1.1 million registered voters with 880,681 Democrats, 147,068 Republicans and 99,011 from all other parties in early November.
Since March, about 77,000 new voters have registered to vote in Philadelphia, said Dennis Lee, chief of staff for City Commissioner Stephanie Singer. That pales in comparison to 2008 numbers when, in just the month of September, 80,000 people registered to vote.
“It’s not on the same pace as it was in 2008,” he said. “We’re behind.”
Historically, voter registration numbers have been the figure to watch.
But this year, being registered to vote isn’t enough. Registered voters must now also have a photo ID to cast their ballot on November 6.
State estimates released earlier this year suggested 186,830 Philadelphians lacked the identification need to cast a ballot. Across the state, that number ballooned to 758,000 registered voters.
PennDOT does not track the number of applications for voter identification.
However, according to PennDOT spokeswoman Jan McKnight, 6,661 voter IDs have been issued since March when Gov. Tom Corbett signed the new law. The vast majority of them — 2,823 — have been issued to Philadelphia residents. She cautioned that that figure was for voter ID cards only — voters may also use a valid driver’s license to vote.
In addition, the Department of State has issued 299 of its voter IDs, which were first available August 28.
McKnight said the department does not track turnaround times for either identity card.
“We do not have a tracking mechanism in place,” she said.
Turnaround could become a crucial issue as Election Day nears.
Anecdotal evidence suggests times vary widely from a little as an hour to as much as a several months, depending on what kind of ID the applicant is seeking and what documents they have.
“A lot of people are frustrated,” Lee said. “But, they are taking the necessary steps to get their ID.”
He related the story of Philadelphia voter, Lawrence Austin, who started the process of getting his ID in June and just received it this week.
“It took him a while, even though he was registered,” Lee said. “It can be a long process and it can be a frustrating process.”
Lee urged voters to persist.
“We have to really press and pick up the pace,” he said. “In order to get the masses out to the polling place, it’s going to be a massive undertaking.”
He also assured Philadelphia residents that if they get to the polls their votes would count.
“We’re going to do everything possible to make sure their vote is counted,” Lee said. “Even if they don’t have ID they can still go to the polls and use a provisional ballot. Don’t allow the voter ID to intimidate you.”
YORK, Pa. — Citing high dropout rates in some public schools, Gov. Tom Corbett on Tuesday promoted taxpayer-paid vouchers as the ticket to a better education for low-income students in Pennsylvania's worst-performing districts as he detailed a broader plan to improve and reshape public education in the state.
Under the proposal, parents who qualify could use the vouchers — dubbed "opportunity scholarships" by Corbett — to send their children not only to private or religious schools, but also to better-performing public schools. His plan also calls for changing how charter schools are established and teachers are evaluated, and expanding tax credits for businesses that fund scholarships.
With the Republican governor already slashing state aid to public schools, a coalition of opponents from traditional defenders of public schools to church-state separation advocates to lawmakers who represent wealthier or rural areas may make passage in the Legislature no easy task. Corbett's main support will come from the ranks of the Legislature's Republican majority, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, privatization advocates and possibly Democrats in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh whose districts include some of the worst-performing schools.
But Corbett, speaking in front of students at the Lincoln Charter School gymnasium in York, said the state cannot run from its failing schools and high dropout rates any longer, citing Philadelphia's 45 percent rate as an example.
"We're here because we can't continue down the same path and think that we're going to get a different result. We have to think and act smarter," Corbett said. "We have to have the will to do better."
Nationally, the high-school dropout rate was 4.1 percent in the 2007-08 school year, according to the most current statistics available from the federal government's National Center for Education Statistics. In Pennsylvania, the rate was 2.6 percent that year, according to the center's information.
Corbett joins New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, both Republicans, as among the most active governors in pushing a "school choice" agenda. Approved by Indiana lawmakers in April, the state's program allows 7,500 vouchers for students to attend private schools in 2011-12, although legal challenges to it are pending in court. Students have applied for about half the vouchers.
Christie has proposed establishing more charter schools and public-private partnerships in education, as well as scrapping lifetime teacher tenure, instituting merit pay in public schools and tying teacher compensation to student achievement.
In Ohio, a five-year voucher program based on school performance has grown to the state cap of 14,000.
Under Corbett's plan, the vouchers would be available to families with incomes at 130 percent of the federal poverty level or less — a family of four earning no more than $29,000 — who are in the attendance zones of the schools that are in the bottom 5 percent in terms of standardized test performance, or about 140 schools. Public and private schools could choose to participate in a program to accept voucher students, Corbett's education secretary, Ronald Tomalis, said.
If a participating school receives more applications from voucher students than it has space to accept, it would have to hold a lottery to prevent it from cherrypicking the highest-achieving students, Tomalis said. Education Department spokesman Tim Eller could not provide an estimate of how many families might qualify for vouchers.
Along with the vouchers, he wants to increase the $75 million Educational Improvement Tax Credit, establish new pathways for charter schools to open and make student achievement count along with classroom observation as part of the performance rating teachers receive.
Asked what proof he has that the initiatives would improve the quality of public education, Corbett replied, "First off, I have the proof that what we have been doing has not been working." Asked how he will judge the success of the measures he is proposing, he replied, "Well, I don't think anyone in this room can judge the success of it immediately."
"This is a long-term investment," Corbett continued. "This is an investment in these children, that when they're our age, we have drastically reduced the dropout rate and as a result, I believe, hopefully reduced quite a bit the client rate in Pennsylvania of people we take care of because we didn't give them a good education in the first place. So anybody that's looking for instant results, that's not going to happen."
Tomalis said he could not yet put a price tag on the plan because talks about the package with the Republican-controlled Legislature are still going on.
A similar effort in the 1990s by then-Republican Gov. Tom Ridge and a Republican-controlled Legislature to approve vouchers failed. In addition, a more ambitious voucher bill proposed in the Senate stalled earlier this year.
Standing outside the Lincoln Charter School, about a dozen former public school teachers and parents of public school students held signs in protest of Corbett's voucher plan. One key point they repeated was Corbett's push to cut $860 million in state aid, or more than 10 percent, from public school instruction and operations in his bid to balance the state budget without raising taxes.
While Corbett contends that competition will force failing schools to improve, the demonstrators pointed out that he didn't protect the state's poorest and worst-performing school districts from drastic funding cuts, and they questioned how those districts are supposed to improve in a weakened state with larger class sizes and fewer programs.
"We need to help all the children, not just a few of them," said Jessica Shiffman, parent of a student in the Shippensburg Area School District. "And this kind of maneuvering with the money is the most inefficient use of money and educates the fewest children. Maybe you get one lucky kid in that school, and that's great for that kid, but what about the rest of them?" -- (AP)
Political wrestling continues over the Senate Appropriations Committee approval of the controversial Marcellus Shale legislation with state senators Vincent Hughes and Mike Stack harshly criticizing drilling proposals.
Last Thursday, the Pennsylvania House approved a bill that would impose what is called an impact fee on wells drilled in the Marcellus Shale for up to 10 years. The bill would direct 75 percent of the money from the impact fee to local counties and municipalities. The remaining 25 percent of the impact fee revenue would go to the state for transportation improvements, emergency response and other purposes. The House bill, which Stack referred to as a “pittance”, would place a $40,000 fee on the wells in operation. It would then decrease to $30,000 in the second year, drop to $20,000 for the third year, and $10,000 for the fourth through 10th years.
House Bill 1950 passed in a 107-76 vote last Thursday, mainly along party lines. The Senate passed its own Marcellus Shale measure in a 29-20 vote on Tuesday.
Hughes, state Senate Democratic Appropriations chair, called Republican approval of the plan unacceptable and has no sufficient safeguards for the environment. Stack referred to it as the worst public fiasco he had ever seen in all of his years in public office. Both senators voted against the Republican bill.
“The Republican plan for Marcellus Shale falls well short of acceptable,” Hughes said. “The tax plan will rank among the five lowest effective tax rates in the country. Senate Democrats offered a reasonable and competitive alternative shale tax plan as an amendment. Their plan does not generate enough revenues from energy extraction and it fails to provide sufficient environmental protections. It does not respect local zoning and will create hardship in our communities as they deal with adverse impacts.”
Senate Democrats offered a counter amendment, which would have implemented a higher impact fee of $75,000 during the first year. The Democrats’ plan would also have improved setback requirements to add 500 feet from the edge of the well pad and provided a higher distribution of funds to environmental protection programs like Growing Greener.
“We believe that the Senate Republican shale plan is a missed opportunity that gives the gas industry a pass,” Hughes said. “The Republican plan should be discarded in favor of a proposal that protects Pennsylvania's interests. It gives a pass to the most lucrative industry in the world, and fails to live up to our expectations of what a reasonable plan should look like.”
Stack, who also opposed the bill, pointed out that while Gov. Tom Corbett has been slashing the budget by cutting education and needed community programs, the natural gas industry is being given a free hand in the Commonwealth.
“This is one of the worst public policy fiascos I have seen in my entire Senate career,” Stack said. “The Republican-led Senate and the governor are bending over backwards to give out-of-state and foreign companies free reign to pillage our natural resources. We need revenue right now to help our entire state. We have cut funding for public education and charter schools by $900 million. We have cut funding for higher education, and now tuitions will increase. We eliminated the adultBasic program,” he said. “A severance tax could have funded some or all of these programs. Instead, Senate Bill 1100 placates the natural gas drilling industry, rather than providing Pennsylvania with much-needed revenues.”
Stack went on to say that Corbett and the Republican majority aren’t giving priority to ordinary Pennsylvanians and added in a prepared statement that extraction taxes would not have driven away the gas drillers.
“They talk about jobs and opportunity, but most of the real economic benefit will take place outside our borders,” Stack said. “I’ve never seen so many license plates from Texas and Oklahoma. A severance tax will not impact where a company will drill for natural gas. Companies go wherever the gas is located. The tax being proposed by this legislation is a pittance in comparison to all other states. Every state with natural gas drilling requires an extraction tax, and the companies have stayed. We will be the only state to have a local impact fee.
Critics of Marcellus Shale drilling proposals state that across the country, 98 percent of natural gas is produced in states that have drilling taxes or fees. In those states, those fees support critical services. Pennsylvania is the largest state in the nation without a drilling tax or fee of any kind. And, according to a recent report released by the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, legislative inaction has allowed more than $208 million in revenues to just slip by, money that could have been used to prevent cuts to public education, colleges and health services.
Hughes stated that the shale tax plan will make Pennsylvania’s rate the 5th lowest effective rate in the country and called the plan a missed opportunity.
“Pennsylvania has one of the largest reserves of natural gas in the country and as a result of the Senate’s actions it will have one of the lowest extraction tax rates in the nation,” Hughes said. “This is a missed opportunity that may never happen again.”
During the Senate debates, Hughes offered an amendment that he said would have generated more than $560 million in additional revenues from shale drillers. The amendment was turned aside by a very close 24-25 vote. The legislation now goes to the House for its consideration.
“The Marcellus Shale plan should do three things: protect Pennsylvania’s environment and its people, generate adequate revenue and give local government the ability to protect their communities,” Hughes said. “Anything less than that is unacceptable.”