The Philadelphia School District has a long way to go before it can close a $61 million budget gap by June, but it hopes its fluidity, along with its appointment of Thomas Knudsen, will lead to a more efficient and solvent district.
Given the district’s multilayered problems and trying to improve matters under the auspices of damaging budgeting cuts, some wonder if the job is too much for the former PGW wunderkind-turned-chief recovery officer.
The $61 million is one thing; another range of issues, including the shuttering of several schools and the continual reorganization of school administrators and officials rank very high on Knudsen’s to-do list; but the district believes it has its man.
“What I can say is, in a very short period of time, when the full body of the School Reform Commission was seated, members of the board moved to analyze the budget and where they stood, and made a very crucial decision to move forward, without delay,” and hire Knudsen, said Public School District spokesman Fernando Gallard. “The members of the SRC are committed to making sure the district does not find itself in a position that [these cuts] affect students.
“The steps the SRC took shows they are clearly very serious,” Gallard continued. “But we’ve got to be realistic; all cuts affect schools one way or the other.”
But where can the district find an additional $61 million to cut? The district – along with school systems throughout Pennsylvania – has had its budgets slashed by Gov. Tom Corbett, who promised cuts to the education budget. Gallard said the state has cut an eye-popping $617 million from the budgets of public schools in the Commonwealth.
“When he was governor, Ed Rendell increased the education budget every year. Rendell made sure education was a priority,” said state Education spokesman Rob Broderick. “But those [budget increases], I don’t suspect will continue. Corbett needs to follow Rendell’s lead.”
Gallard foretells a doomsday situation if the district cannot meet its $61 million cut target. Former interim superintendent Leroy Nunery II was to lead the district back to fiscal sanity; in last week’s upheaval, Nunery was reassigned and now serves as special adviser to the SRC.
“We must pay our debt service to be able to barrow money in the future…[not paying] it would make us short on payroll,” Gallard said. “We may not be able to pay people in July for the work done in June. It would also mean carrying over a deficit from one school year to the next.”
Student advocates fear these demands will ultimately lead to a cuts that will affect a student’s ability to learn.
“I’m not quite clear on why the Philadelphia School District’s budget deficit is as big as it is, especially given all the cutbacks we had,” said Michael Churchill, Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia counsel, who successfully intervened on behalf of the students caught in the roiling funding argument between Corbett and the Chester Upland School District. “I think Philadelphia and Chester both show the need for transparency, so people can understand where the budget is coming from and why it’s so large.
“We know the state cut back on funding, but the deficit is much larger than the cutbacks…consequently, it leaves people wondering if and how the district can survive these times.”
Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, chair of Council’s education committee, also wishes for further transparency from the district.
“We’re still losing traditional schools and charter schools, attendance is down, and that’s very frightening,” said Blackwell. “What we intend is for the SRC and its leadership to talk to our committee about where they are and what they are doing to define in detail how they want to do these cuts.”
Gallard believes these mandated cuts should have minimal affect on the quality of education students receive. He says Philadelphia students already excel under ongoing cuts, and they should continue to do so.
“We have had many successes in increasing net gains and test scores; the district has created a system of schools that provide choice to parents, to the point now where we have one-third of all students in charter schools,” Gallard said. “There’s been an increase in the Annual Yearly Progress in 161 schools, and we are in the process of shifting low-performance seats to higher-performing seats.
“We’ve accomplished a lot, but if we don’t take care of our financial issues, we will be in a serious position of basically trying to meet our financial demands in the future.”
Maybe Gov. Tom Corbett is not a cold-hearted conservative consumed with a commitment to cut state government spending principally by gutting services essential to sustaining minimal sustenance for Pennsylvania’s most desperately needy citizens.
However, after reading the comprehensive analysis of devastating impacts from the governor’s budget-slashing practices published in last week’s Philadelphia City Paper, it is hard not to conclude Corbett budget initiatives aren’t deliberate scorched-earth assaults.
That City Paper analysis detailed Corbett budget cuts ravaging so many, from seniors needing medical services to school districts now unable to fund educating children.
Instead of criticism though, give Corbett a benefit of the doubt — extending ex-prosecutor Corbett a courtesy he rarely extended non-politically-connected persons facing trial and prisoners appealing convictions corrupted by official misconduct.
Accept Corbett wanting firmer financial footing for Pennsylvania in these slippery times of escalating costs and decreasing revenues arising from America’s on-going recession.
Corbett must generate money somewhere since he vehemently opposes raising revenues from available sources like fully taxing Marcellus Shale gas extraction (which is detrimentally “taxing” the state’s environment) or taxing marijuana after decriminalization — a fee millions of Pennsylvania pot smokers would willingly pay including users working inside the Capitol in Harrisburg.
In an effort to assist Corbett identify revenue draining areas, there is one area in the state’s budget, ripe for reform, currently costing in excess of $15.5 million annually containing a built-in guarantee that the current cost will increase dramatically during this entire century.
That $15.5 million-plus ripe for eliminating is the amount Pennsylvania spends for its legal penchant of slamming life-without-parole sentences on juveniles convicted in adult courts of felony homicide crimes including convictions of young persons not directly involved in the homicide that sent them to state prison.
Pennsylvania presently holds approximately 470 persons languishing under life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed while juveniles, according to those expert in this sentencing slime pit.
State prisons, in 2010, held a dozen persons serving life-without-parole sentences who were under the age twenty and another 181 aged 20–24 according to the state prison system’s own statistics.
In Pennsylvania’s prison system the oldest juvenile-sentenced-lifer is 70, having spent 56-years in prison for a homicide committed at age 14.
That 70-year-old received that life sentence for a crime committed before that person could legally drive, drink, vote, marry, enlist in the military or even think rationally according to scientific evidence recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court that utilized that evidence in recent years to abolish death sentences for juveniles and juvenile life sentences for non-homicide crimes.
That $15.5 million, spent on persons serving juvenile life sentences in Pennsylvania, increases annually as young inmates’ age, a cost arising from soaring costs for medical, security and other services required for elderly inmates.
At one state prison, just long-term care for infirmed elderly inmates costs $63,500 annually per inmate, over $30,000 more than the annual cost for younger inmates.
Pennsylvania carries the ugly distinction of being the state with the largest population of persons serving juvenile-life-without-parole sentences in the United States.
And so-called freedom championing America carries the even uglier distinction of standing “alone in the world in the imposition of juvenile life sentences with no option for parole” according to a D.C.-based Sentencing Project report.
Given the race-based disparities infesting America’s criminal justice system, it’s not surprising that over 65 percent of Pa. prison inmates serving juvenile-life-without-parole sentences are African American.
Gov. Corbett, his conservative confederates including legislators and prosecutors plus victim’s rights advocates certainly contend that any juvenile committing a felony homicide condemns themselves to the (rightfully horrific) sentence of life without parole.
Yet, statistics do not support that strident stance.
In Pennsylvania approximately 26 percent of juvenile lifers did not themselves commit a homicide — receiving convictions under legal measures mandating mandatory sentencing for anyone involved in a felony murder irrespective of level of participation in that crime.
Further, almost 60 percent of Pa.’s juvenile lifers were first-time offenders — not the habitual violent offenders normally considered legitimate candidates for medieval-like until-they-die imprisonment.
Persons seeking reforms in the money draining, morally outrageous juvenile life sentencing do not seek immediate releases but merely the opportunity for those serving such sentences to receive parole review and possible release if deemed worthy.
Recidivism for the 285 Pa. lifers released under commuted sentences is 1 percent, according to Sentencing Project statistics.
“We seek the possibility of parole, not the guarantee of release. We’re not advocating the release of dangerous sociopaths,” said Anita Colon, Pennsylvania Coordinator of the National Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth.
The state of juvenile lifers is not merely an academic interest for Colon.
Colon’s brother, Robert Holbrook, received a juvenile life sentence for serving as a look-out on his 16th birthday for a drug-related, 1990 Philadelphia robbery that ended in a homicide. Holbrook didn’t commit that murder.
Holbrook, who’s served over 20-years in prison, wrote in a 2008 essay that “a child offender” who makes a terrible decision as a youth in Pennsylvania receives less “justice and leniency” than in countries like China and Libya.
If Corbett is serious about cutting wasteful state spending he would join the movement to reform laws mandating mandatory life-without-parole sentences for certain juvenile offenders — sentences that some adult mass murders don’t receive.
“When the law preys on its child offenders … it is no better than the criminal predators that prey on children in society,” Holbrook wrote.
Linn Washington Jr. is a graduate of the Yale Law Fellowship Program.
It has been a difficult, challenging, and news-filled week here in Philadelphia, and for that matter, across the nation. That’s not a complaint — as a columnist, I prefer having a wide choice of subjects to grouse about, as opposed to staring at a blank screen for a half hour, waiting for inspiration.
President Barack Obama finally produced his promised common sense proposals on gun control — to the anger and consternation of the National Rifle Association and their trigger-happy supporters, who insist that owning powerful assault rifles and high-capacity magazines that you can’t possibly use for legitimate home defense purposes are still somehow an inalienable right of citizenship. Next they’ll tell us that the Second Amendment also covers tanks, bazookas, battleships and armed drones.
Locally, we had a horrific kidnapping — some sick piece of work decided to snatch a child from her elementary school classroom. Thank God the baby was found relatively unharmed — if you call being left half-naked and freezing on a playground in the middle of the night unharmed. As the father of a daughter who is the light of my life, I cannot imagine what hell those parents went through, but I can tell you this — if it were my child, I would make every effort to find the perpetrators myself. Our criminal justice system is far too merciful to give them the punishment they truly deserve.
The School District of Philadelphia’s immovable object of a plan to close three dozen schools by the end of the year has finally been met by the irresistible force of angry parents and advocates who are tired of watching schools be picked apart piece by piece. First the non-teaching assistants, school nurses, and librarians get the boot; then the art and music programs are deemed unnecessary, then finally the whole building gets padlocked. People are angry, and sooner rather than later, expect the villagers to gather with the pitchforks and torches.
And while it certainly doesn’t rise to the level of the previous stories, there was the matter of Chip Kelly, the head coach of the Oregon Ducks, who is now the head coach of the hapless Philadelphia Eagles. This probably means several more painful seasons of sub-par football, with lots of talk about “rebuilding the franchise.” Goodbye playoffs, see you in 2018.
But a heavy news week also brings with it an unforeseen hazard - the old under-the-radar political move. You know the drill - while we’re all distracted by guns, kidnappings, and Shawty Low’s baby mamas, savvy politicians know that the time is right to enact the crazy, the untested, and the unpalatable ideas they’ve had floating around a while, waiting for the perfect opportunity.
This week’s misdirection and sleight of hand comes to us courtesy of an expert in the craft - our old friend Gov. Tom Corbett.
While you were worried about closing schools and assault rifles in the hands of maniacs, Corbett was selling the state’s lottery system right out from under you - to some British firm who was the only bidder on the contract.
I’m not saying the deal wasn’t on the up and up, only that it smells fishy. Why the rush to get it done right now, in spite of the objections of many in his own party? Now folks are asking the right questions, and newly sworn-in Attorney General Kathleen Kane has 30 days to review the deal. I hope she has her staff working nights and weekends for the next month, and goes over this thing with a fine-toothed comb.
And finally, as the topper, Corbett has gotten together with Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus on a plan to rig the next presidential election. That’s right, I said rig.
You may recall from November that President Obama won Pennsylvania and the 20 Electoral College votes that come with it, a winner take-all-system that has worked just fine until now. Well, the Priebus-Corbett plan would allocate electoral votes by congressional district, rather than by states as a whole, meaning that in states that consistently vote for Democratic presidential candidates, the gerrymandered Republican congressional districts would get shares of the electoral vote, even when their candidate loses the state.
What it means, in a nutshell, is that Mitt Romney would have won the bulk of Pennsylvania’s Electoral College votes, even while losing the popular vote to Obama. Multiply that by the number of states Priebus plans to rig, and Plastic Man would be sitting in the White House right now.
See what happens when you’re distracted during a busy week?
Daryl Gale is the city editor of the Philadelphia Tribune.
Once again Gov. Tom Corbett is proposing a state budget plan that drastically slashes funding to higher education and programs that aid children, the disabled and elderly.
Last year the governor cut state funding to higher education by nearly 20 percent in which colleges responded by raising tuitions and cutting programs.
This week Corbett proposed a $27.1 billion budget plan that calls for a 30 percent cut in state aid to Pennsylvania State University, University of Pittsburgh and Temple University and a 20 percent cut to the 14 state-owned universities including Cheyney University and West Chester.
Funding for Lincoln University would see no reduction and remain at this year’s $11.1 million level. The Corbett administration did not explain why Lincoln was spared.
Slashing state funds to higher education is misguided and shortsighted. Another drastic state funding decrease will result in colleges raising tuition to make up for the difference in lost aid. The cuts to higher education mean working families will end up paying higher tuition costs.
Ironically the same day the governor proposed drastic cuts to colleges he also appointed a Higher Education advisory panel to report on affordability and access issues.
The governor does not need to wait for the 30-member advisory panel to issue him a report to know that slashing state funding to higher education for the second straight year will result in higher tuition cost which will make college less affordable and less accessible to many Pennsylvania students.
In addition to proposed cuts of up to 30 percent, the governor is also proposing to eliminate a $300 million program that provides temporary cash assistance to more than 60,000 residents who don’t qualify for disability payments.
The governor is also proposing a $170 million in cuts to social-service funding, Philadelphia is expected to lose $42 million in the city’s welfare system, most of it in cuts for mental-health and homeless services, said Donald F. Schwarz, deputy mayor for health and opportunity.
Corbett’s budget proposal is made even grimmer as a result of his refusal to propose any state tax increases.
The governor is seeking to balance the state budget by slashing aid to colleges and cutting funding to those most vulnerable.
Gov. Tom Corbett’s plan to implement asset testing for food stamp recipients is wrong and mean-spirited.
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 $2,00 in savings or other assets subject to the rule, or more than $3,250 for people who are over 60 or disabled.
On Thursday at a press conference at City Hall, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Mayor Michael Nutter, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady and state Sens. Vincent Hughes and Shirley Kitchen urged Corbett to reconsider the plan slated to start May 1.
“This is one of the most mean-spirited, asinine plans to come out of Harrisburg in a long time,” said Mayor Nutter.
Vilsack refuted the Corbett administration’s stated reason for implementing asset tests — cost-cutting and fraud prevention — saying that Pennsylvania already had one of the lowest fraud rates in the nation, and added the program is funded by the federal government.
“It’s not going to save the commonwealth of Pennsylvania a single dime,” Vilsack said.
“The money for the program is federally funded. Number two, it’s likely going to cost the commonwealth of Pennsylvania money because when you institute an asset test you have to make sure that you create a process by which those applications are reviewed.”
On Wednesday, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell warned that 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.”
If the Corbett administration’s plan is costly and unnecessary why is it being proposed?
The answer is gutter politics.
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s attacks on the food stamps program and calling President Obama “the food stamps president,” were thinly disguised racial code words that helped him win the Republican presidential primary in South Carolina.
Gingrich linked food stamps with Blacks although the majority of the people using food stamps are not African American. According to 2010 Census numbers, about 26 percent of food stamp recipients are African American, 49 percent are white and 20 percent are Hispanic.
At a time when Americans are facing sustained unemployment and rising food prices, Corbett and conservative Republicans are shamelessly attacking one of the most reliable safety nets for families who suddenly find themselves unable to pay for food.
Veteran state Rep. W. Curtis Thomas, in releasing last week his alternate state budget proposal, made it quite clear where he stands on Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget proposal, describing it as “mean, ugly and inhumane.”
Thomas, whose “Putting People First Now!” proposal reallocates $1.7 billion in funding to the core issues of education, employment, health care and housing, said his plan “will mark the beginning of a discussion that will lead us to enact a state budget that truly puts the people of the Commonwealth first.” This is the second year that Thomas has introduced an alternate budget.
“In these difficult economic times, many Pennsylvanians are struggling to provide the basic necessities for their families,” Jones said during a conference in Harrisburg. “However, Governor Corbett’s proposed budget would do more harm than good for those who have already fallen on tough economic times. We are opposed to the governor’s plan to block grants for basic education, student achievement, housing redevelopment assistance and human services development programs.
“This will allow the governor to pass the responsibility to local communities which are already paying higher taxes and fees.”
Corbett released his proposed budget early this year, and states the commonwealth has an operating budget of $63.3 billion for the 2012–13 fiscal year; that includes $27.1 billion in the general fund, $21.5 billion in federal funds, $12.2 billion in fees and special fund revenues and finally, $2.5 billion in the motor license fund.
“The 2012–13 budget I present puts Pennsylvania on a path to prosperity again by aligning the commonwealth’s resources with the core functions and priorities of government: education, public safety, and individual responsibility and opportunity,” Corbett stated through a letter that accompanied his budget proposal. “In education, this budget significantly enhances the commonwealth’s investment in basic education by providing greater funding flexibility to local school districts and allowing them to focus that funding on students and student achievement.”
Currently, Corbett’s proposal calls for $6.52 billion for the Student Achievement Education Block Grant. Thomas said that does little, when one considers the cuts to education and Corbett has enacted in his first term as governor.
“If we agree that education must be a priority in Pennsylvania, then the $300 million in cuts to education must be restored. We cannot continue to say that new shills are required to compete effectively in the 21st century economy, but not fund education properly,” Thomas said. “The future of Pennsylvania ins inextricably tied to providing a quality 21st century education on all levels.”
Thomas’ proposed $1.7 billion in total reallocated funds would be broken down into several categories, including: the reallocation of $1.9 million to the Commission on Crime and Delinquency; $3 million allocated to create the Children & Family Network; $5 million budget giveback for acute care hospital funding and various health care measures; $5 million to fund the Workforce Development Program at the Department of Labor and Industry.
Thomas plan also calls for $7.5 million fund the creation of the Keystone Job training Tax within the Department of Economic and Community Development.
“The reallocations I am proposing are just a few examples of what we can do on behalf of the people of the commonwealth,” Thomas said. “This is just the starting point. We have the necessary funding to ensure that no citizen is hurt by the 2012–13 state budget.”
Thomas’ plan also calls for education funding to be restored to fiscal year 2009–10 levels, that basic education receives $376 million in increased funding and the restoration of funding to four core healthcare programs: lupus treatment, trauma program coordination, diabetes services and better transportation to area Department of Drug and Alcohol centers.
And lastly, Thomas’ alternate budget includes at least $60 million to assist homeowners via Homeowner’s Emergency Mortgage Assistance, Pennsylvania Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement Program and the Housing and Redevelopment Assistance Program.
“Foreclosures in rural and urban Pennsylvania are increasing while the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency remains underfunded,” Thomas said. “Thousands of Pennsylvanians who have lost their jobs have no health insurance and school districts around the commonwealth struggle to maintain their buildings and staffs.
“In light of these realities facing our constituents, [I] cannot, in good conscience, support Governor Corbett’s budget and must stand against his hard-hearted proposal.”
On Sunday August 12 at 6 p.m., area clergy leaders will band together to host a “Voter ID Rally” at Bright Hope Baptist Church, 12th Street & Cecil B. Moore Avenue.
According to Pennsylvania’s Voter ID Law, Act 18 of 2012 (starting with the upcoming November 2012 General Election), state law now requires voters to show an acceptable photo ID to vote at the polls. All IDs must contain a name, a photo and an expiration date that is current, unless otherwise noted. And there are restrictions on what’s considered acceptable identification.
“A number of clergy from the Philadelphia community have decided to come together, because we are very upset with the efforts in Harrisburg to suppress the votes, particularly in the African American and Hispanic communities,” said the Rev. Dr. Kevin R. Johnson, senior pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church. The rally is designed to educate the voters on what proper identification they will need to vote in the upcoming November election.
“This rally is so important that we’re asking for all people, here in this great city, to come to Bright Hope Baptist Church on Aug. 12 at 6 p.m. … this election is too crucial, our people have fought too much, bled too much, died too much, during the early part of the 20th century, we cannot allow their hard work and sacrifice to be in vain, simply because we’re not educated and registered to vote.”
The Rev. Dr. William Moore, senior pastor of Tenth Memorial Baptist Church said: “We want to push for a large [voter] turnout, not a low turnout. We want people to participate in this election in November, in this political process, as they’ve never done before. … We want this [year’s voter turnout] to make a statement in the political process.”
Including Johnson and Moore, the other key Voter ID clergy coordinators for Sunday’s Voter ID Rally include:
·The Rev. Charles Quann, Bethlehem Baptist Church
·The Rev. James Baker, President of AME Minister’s Alliance of Philadelphia, Harrisburg & Vicinity
·Bishop Audrey Brunson, Sanctuary of the Open Door
·The Rev. Wayne M. Weathers, Miller Memorial Baptist Church
·The Rev. J. Daniel Jones, President of Baptist Ministers Conference of Philadelphia and Vicinity
Some prominent Pennsylvanian Republicans disagree with the thought that the Voter ID Law is a form of voter suppression. They earnestly believe that it’s a way to protect and ensure the integrity of the voting process and individual voter rights.
Responding to the groundswell of foul-cries from Pennsylvanians, the media, and the legal communities regarding the new Voter ID law, Carol Aichele, secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, issued a recent statewide letter to Pennsylvanians to quell tensions and to educate voters on requirements to vote in the upcoming November election. Aichele wrote: “My goal, as secretary of the Commonwealth, is to make sure that every eligible voter has an opportunity to vote and that every vote counts. Pennsylvania’s new voter identification law requires voters to show a photo ID … This gives one person one vote.”
On Aug. 6, Gov. Tom Corbett told The Tribune at the Governor’s Mansion: “in this day and age, when everywhere we go, we’re asked for photo ID, why [is] everybody so upset about that? I think everybody wants to ensure, that: A, they have the right to vote, and this [voter ID law] isn’t stopping anyone from the right to vote; and B, that they vote one time, and where they’re supposed to vote. That’s all we’re asking for.”
According to Aichele, the following is a list of acceptable photo IDs issued by the U.S. Government or the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania:
·Pennsylvania driver’s license or PennDOT photo ID card (valid for voting 12 months past expiration date)
·U.S. military ID (active duty and retired military IDs may designate an expiration date that is indefinite). Military dependents’ IDs must contain a current expiration date.
·Employee photo identification issued by federal, Pennsylvania, or a Pennsylvania County, or municipal government
·Photo identification issued by an accredited Pennsylvania public or private institution of higher learning
·Photo identification issued by a Pennsylvania care facility
In the case of a voter who has a RELIGIOUS OBJECTION to being photographed, acceptable IDs include the following:
·Valid without-photo Pennsylvania driver’s license
·PennDOT without-photo identification card
What if a voter does not have an acceptable form of ID?
·A person who is registered to vote, but does not have an acceptable form of ID, may obtain a FREE PHOTO ID for voting purposes at a PennDOT Driver’s License Center.
Pennsylvanians can view or download a free copy of voter identification requirements and related information by logging online to:
For more information about the voter ID rally, contact the Rev. Kevin Johnson at 215-232-6004 or the Rev. William Moore, 215-787-2780.
Looking ahead to a new legislative session, state Sen. Anthony Williams recently unveiled his agenda – which includes a proposal to end a phenomenon called “passing the trash” – and discussed several other items that will have a major impact on Philadelphia.
Williams met with The Tribune’s editorial board to discuss legislation being mulled over in the upcoming session. The Senate will reconvene March 5 and the House resumes March 12.
There are several controversial proposals circulating in the General Assembly, and with both chambers controlled by Republicans and a Republican in the governor’s office, the GOP has the ability to move just about any legislation over the objection of Democrats.
That fact worries Williams, who noted that Republicans from both branches are focused on a pushing their version of conservatism though legislation.
“This administration is the most ideological I’ve ever seen,” Williams said.
Chief among them: a voter identification bill, a concept endorsed by Gov. Tom Corbett, legislation that would require voters to provide a state approved ID at the polls before they can vote.
The Senate and House both have their own versions.
Williams said he expects the Senate bill to move out of the state government committee this spring.
“They’re going to try and make it happen,” he said. “I don’t know if the House is lined up, but I’m quite clear that they’re trying to line up the Senate.”
Supports say the proposals would cut down on voter fraud. Critics, including many elected officials from Philadelphia and the surrounding region, charge that it keeps minority and poor voters from casting their ballots.
Another item, which has generated ripples across the state, is a Welfare Department plan to impose an asset test on food stamp recipients. Under the administration’s latest proposal, a household with more than $5,500 in eligible assets for the typical family or $9,000 for a household with an elderly or disabled member, would be barred from receiving food stamps.
Those numbers were an increase from an earlier proposal, in which people under 60 with more than $2,000 in savings or other assets – including an automobile – would have
been barred from receiving food stamps. For people over 60, that threshold was set at $3,250. Asset testing will go into affect May 1.
An estimated 440,000 Philadelphians receive food stamps.
Williams, and a number of other Philadelphia legislators, have proposed a bill that would remove the welfare department’s power to put eligibility restrictions in place without legislative approval.
“We’re trying to eradicate this,” he said.
It was too early to tell if the proposal would be approved by the General Assembly, he said.
The asset test plan now proposed can be put in place without legislative approval because as part of last year’s budget approval process, Corbett and the legislature agreed to trim the welfare department’s budget - and could do so without coming back to the table for more approvals.
Williams has sponsored several other proposals he hopes to see some action on in this session.
Among them is a bill that would hold parents or guardians responsible for crimes committed by a minor in their care.
“It would now rise to a criminal offense,” he said, noting that it would be a third degree misdemeanor.
Under the plan, parents or guardians who “intentionally and knowingly” commit acts that cause their child to become involved in a crime could be prosecuted. The proposal does allow parents to enter, with the approval of the district attorney’s office, a diversion program that requires them to take part in parenting classes.
“Then their record would be expunged,” said Williams.
If they fail to complete the program they would be referred back to the courts for criminal prosecution.
Finally, Williams has also put forth a bill that would force elementary and secondary schools, public and private, to release employment histories for employees and independent contractors, and their employees who come into contact with children if they have ever faced allegations of abuse or sexual misconduct.
“This is a pre-emptive step to protect children before a crime is committed,” he said. “It’s one that’s worked in other states, and we hope it will work in Pennsylvania.”
Personnel files are confidential, and separation agreements negotiated in the wake of accusations usually are too.
“That places the protection of the accused predator above the safety of our children.”
Opposition is expected from the teachers’ union, Williams admitted.
But, he said its time to stop a pattern called “passing the trash” where employees who are accused of abuse or sexual misconduct leave quietly, and then get a job at another school where they can abuse again, all without the knowledge of those who hire them.
Shipyard signs $400M contract with ExxonMobil
A Houston-based affiliate of ExxonMobil and the Aker Philadelphia Shipyard signed a $400 million contract for two oil tankers on Monday, sealing a pact expected to create more than 600 local jobs.
The additional jobs will push the total number of jobs at the shipyard to over 1,000, officials said, trumpeting the project for the jobs it would generate.
“This will take our numbers back up to more than 1,000 highly skilled, highly competent craftsmen and women who work on these new ships,” said Mayor Michael Nutter. “What a spectacular achievement right here in Philadelphia. It’s a spectacular achievement that we’re still making ships here in the Navy Yard. It will only continue. It will only grow.”
The event drew a number of the state’s most prominent politicians to the shipyard for a ceremonial contract signing between SeaRiver Maritime and Acker in front a hulking segment of a ship — not one of the tankers — already under construction.
They all echoed Nutter, extolling the project as something that set a pattern for future growth.
“An investment here, in the people of Philadelphia, in this shipyard, is an investment on behalf of all Pennsylvania,” said Gov. Tom Corbett. “Because anywhere that Pennsylvanians succeed all Pennsylvanians succeed.”
One of the first acts of Corbett’s administration was providing the shipyard with $42 million in state funds.
Asked by reporters why he approved the funds at a time when the state was facing a deficit of more than $1 billion, Corbett answered that he viewed the move as an investment that would pay dividends for the state.
“We’re going to get it back through the employment here,” he said, meaning that ultimately the tax revenue generated by employees and the yard itself would cover the state’s investment.
“If Philadelphia grows Pennsylvania grows,” he said. “It is the job of government to help business create jobs for all of you, and that’s what we were working for.”
All of the jobs created through the construction of the two ships will be union jobs. According to Kristian Rokke, CEO of Acker, contracts were recently ratified with 11 unions involved in ship construction, allowing the shipyard to move forward.
“These people are highly skilled and motivated,” Rokke said. “They give me the confidence to say, “We are going to build these vessels to high standards. We’re going to deliver them on time and on budget.”
The latest incarnation of the shipyard, now the Aker Philadelphia Shipyard, opened in 2000, reinvigorating the stagnant facility. Prior to that, the shipyard, then the Naval Shipyard, employed roughly 7,000 people when it closed in 1995, raising doubts as to the future of what was once one of the busiest shipyards on the east coast.
Construction of the two ships is expected to begin in mid-2012 with SeaRiver Maritime taking delivery of both vessels in 2014. When completed, the two ships — Liberty class tankers, each 820 feet long, 115,000 tons — will be used to transport crude oil from Alaska to ports along the West Coast. Each double-hulled tanker will be able to carry 34 million gallons of crude. Both ships will be equipped with state of the art navigation equipment, oil mist and gas detection systems, and cleaner burning engines.
They will be the 17th and 18th ships built in Philadelphia by Aker.
“When these ships set sail they will sustain jobs in Alaska and in ports of call along the west coast,” said Andy Swiger, senior vice president from ExxonMobil. “And they will support good jobs at refineries and plants across America.”
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.”