The budget is officially done, and on time

Article posted on June 30, 2011

Well, the budget is officially done, and on time. We ran things a little close to the wire, but finished the Welfare Code, the Fiscal Code and the 4 non-preferred bills. In addition to a pretty substantial list of other bills we sent to the Governor today, the battle this evening was on a bill to better control school property taxes. At the time of this writing, the House is still debating SB 330. This bill originally was written to allow small businesses to make installment payments on their school taxes. It was amended to also take away the majority of the exceptions granted in Act 1, the law that was passed to cap tax increases by schools to the rate of inflation with about 10 exceptions that can permit schools to raise taxes higher than that inflation rate. This amended bill takes away all of the exceptions but three, and more narrowly defines two of those three. This is what the taxpayers of this state have been asking for as a result of the threats of many schools to raise taxes and the abuse of these exceptions over the years. We should get the bill over to the Senate sometime late tonight and we’ll pass it. Good legislation is well worth the wait.

-John

This is not even close to the truth

Article posted on June 29, 2011

The Altoona Mirror today published one of the most irresponsible editorials I’ve seen in a long time.  In the middle of one of the most interesting budget battles in years,  they took two budget lines on the appropriations for the legislative members salaries and through ignorance of the facts and innuendo, assert that legislators are getting whopping salary increases come January.  This is not even close to the truth.   The editorial states that they don’t know why these budget lines changed, but they wrote, “salary totals raise questions” and “are legislators building in room for a possible cost-of-living or general wage increase?  It’s something worth keeping an eye on”.  Well, the lines did go up and that should raise questions, but isn’t that what the media is supposed to do, ask questions?  Any real journalist would have picked up the phone and called someone in the Senate and House and asked them to explain why these lines went up.  The Senate’s explanation is that the line was corrected to reflect what the actual cost has been over the past several years. In other words, this line did not show the actual cost of the appropriation before this budget.  Money was taken from somewhere else to pay for the difference.  This year, the accounting was corrected to be as accurate throughout the Senate’s budget as possible and show the true cost in each line.  I don’t know the answer for why the House’s line changed and I’m not making up a sensational answer.  My recommendation for anyone who wants to know is to call the House and ask.

There is no excuse not to

Article posted on June 28, 2011

It has been another long day, but we’re getting the major portions of the budget through the process.  Today, the House Democrats realized their misguided ways on the non-preferreds and contributed enough votes to pass them.  We got the Senate bills through our chamber tonight, as well.  (Our Democrats had the same revelation).  The big vote today was the general appropriations bill, which most people refer to as “the budget”.  It passed on a party line vote after hours of speeches from the minority party.  This was actually the first budget Mike Folmer and I voted for, which didn’t go unnoticed on the floor.  We also passed the education code.  We have the Fiscal Code, the Welfare Code and the House Non-Preferreds yet to do and the budget will be complete.  The Wall Street Journal hit our party pretty hard today.  They ran a story blaming predominantly the Governor and the House Majority Leader for not getting school vouchers done.  This was the buzz at the capitol and may help light a fire under the House leadership.  We have the votes to help our kids and there is no excuse not to.

-John

Governor Signs Eichelberger Bills

Article posted on June 28, 2011

** NEWS RELEASE **

Governor Signs Eichelberger Bills
Authorizing Local Governments to Use Online Auctions

Harrisburg, PA – Tuesday, June 28, 2011– Today, Governor Tom Corbett signed into law two bills authored by State Senator John H. Eichelberger, Jr. (R-30), which would allow local governments to take advantage of electronic auction sites when selling property.

Prior to the bills’ passage, existing law had required local governments to sell personal property such as equipment and vehicles by advertising for sealed bids in the newspaper. In 2006, the General Assembly granted this same authority to Second Class Townships, which has successfully resulted in a better and more competitive bidding process for the disposal of surplus government items. Eichelberger’s legislation, Senate Bill 358 and Senate Bill 360, would extend this option to first class townships and third class cities.

Upon the Governor’s signature, Eichelberger noted: “This modernization of personal property disposition rules has worked well for second class townships, and will similarly benefit the other forms of local government as well. Authorizing the use of modern technology is an important component of trying to make government more efficient and cost effective.”

The legislation takes effect immediately.

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What a shame

Article posted on June 27, 2011

It was a long day of session, like we have at this time of the year. The process is still moving forward, but with a few bumps. We got the final appropriations figures today and moved a lot of bills through the Senate. SB 1151, the bill that would change Act 47, the law that allows the state to help financially distressed cities, was amended on the floor. The amendment changed the definition of the cities included from a narrow four city group to all 3rd Class cities. This change was needed, in my opinion, to make the bill pass constitutional muster. Although, this was an appropriate change, the bill is still not something that I think I can support. The other big battle on the floor of both the Senate and the House was over “non-preferred” appropriations. These are the bills that fund the state-related universities. In the House, the Democrats argued that a 19% cut was too great for these institutions. They said that for each of the schools except Lincoln University. It appears that the cuts are acceptable for our state’s African-American college. The Dems in the Senate, later in the evening, argued that the process is bad and that they need more time to review the entire budget before they can vote on this separate piece. The bottom line is that the D’s could very easily derail the funding for these schools until fall. This is a travesty. The schools will get this money at some point. They may, however, not be able to plan their budgets and, therefore, be forced to make changes to tuition, staffing, etc. This, all for political stunts by a minority of the legislature on a 2\3rds majority vote. What a shame.

-John

A complete budget, at this point, is still not ready to go

Article posted on June 26, 2011

The Senate and the House are at the capitol this evening starting to put the agreed upon budget bills through the process. On the floor tonight, we amended all of the “non-preferred” bills to include their allocation. The plan is to vote on these bills, as amended, tomorrow. These bills provide funding for Penn State, Pitt, Temple, Lincoln and U Penn (Veterinary School). The budget cuts for the state-related universities ended up being 19% less than this year’s funding, which is way down from the 52% proposed by the Governor in March. On each of the non-preferred bills, the Democrats offered amendments to restore the funding to the current level. Every vote was along party-lines. Other parts of the budget are still being worked out. Things look good, but a complete budget, at this point, is still not ready to go.

-John

Keep your fingers crossed

Article posted on June 25, 2011

After my men’s fellowship group this morning, I helped with Blair County’s annual Household Hazardous Waste Collection at Blair County Ball Park. I helped get this started when I was a Commissioner and have helped every year since. I went to an Eagle Scout ceremony in Mapleton Depot this afternoon. I cut the grass today and got some office work done. Everything scheduled this close to the budget deadline is tentative, but so far I’ve been able to make it to everything I’ve committed to. I’m scheduled to go to an Eagle Scout ceremony tomorrow at 1:00. I have to be in session at 4:00, so we had to tell the family that I could only stop by for a few minutes. That’s the closest I’ve gotten to a cancellation. With some luck, we’ll get everything accomplished for an on-time budget this week, the first in 9 years. Keep your fingers crossed.

-John

This combination works for us pledge takers

Article posted on June 24, 2011

There was a clarification on the tax pledge issue I mentioned in last evening’s blog post. The assessment is clearly viewed as a tax, however, the pledge allows for an increase in one tax if an offset occurs in another tax. This is the case in this year’s budget. The Capital Stock and Franchise Tax is slated to be decreased in accordance with the phase out plan agreed to several years back. This combination works for us pledge takers.

-John

A tax under any other name is still a tax

Article posted on June 23, 2011

A deal has been reached on the budget. The details are still being put to paper, but the parameters are in place. We were sent home a day earlier than expected so that all of the printing could be accomplished. We’re scheduled to go back on Sunday instead of Monday and get the bills through the process before the June 30th deadline. There is an interesting snag that developed today. Last session, the hospitals agreed to tax themselves. That’s correct. The money was to be put into a restricted fund and used as a match for federal dollars. Although the hospitals agreed to this willingly and, in fact, profited by it. This hospital “assessment”, mandated in law by the state, is a tax. Therefore, I, as a no-new-tax pledge official, did not vote for it. In this budget, some of the funding was taken out of this restricted account and used for other purposes. Now the hospitals are being asked to pay more into this fund, or, in other words, are having their taxes raised. Governor Corbett says that the term in this assessment law is “fee” and that he doesn’t view increasing this fee as a violation of his no-new-tax pledge. The founder of the pledge weighed in today and said that it would be a pledge violation to increase the assessment. The press is on top of this and already writing stories. As this stands, I won’t be voting for this part of the budget due to my pledge (which is the same one the Governor signed). I’ll give the Governor a chance to look into this further before he makes his final decision, but a tax under any other name is still a tax.

-John

By tomorrow, something is going to have to move

Article posted on June 22, 2011

We passed a number of bills today, but nothing that will grab the headlines. I had a resolution passed to honor the County Commissioners Association of PA’s 125th anniversary. I was joined on the floor by four other Senators who are former County Commissioners as well as our Lt. Governor who was a County Commissioner. The budget has still not been resolved, and we are running out of time. The process takes days to complete, so we can’t wait until next week to put the numbers in a bill and pass it on our side of the building then send it to the House. By tomorrow, something is going to have to move. The negotiations are close and with a little luck, an agreement can be reached by tomorrow.

-John