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In this Email Update:
Senate approves legislation to combat opioid addiction crisis
The Senate on Wednesday unanimously approved three measures addressing the state’s growing opioid addiction crisis.
Senate Bill 1212 would establish the School Aged Children Opioid Awareness Education Program. The Departments of Drug and Alcohol Programs, Health, and Education will work together to design a request for proposals for organizations that can provide opioid awareness education programs to be delivered in schools.
Senate Bill 1367 limits the amount of opioids that children may be prescribed, with reasonable exceptions for cases involving chronic pain, cancer treatment or for palliative care or hospice care. It also requires a health care professional to obtain written consent from a minor’s parent or legal guardian to prescribe a medical treatment containing opioids, and provide information on the risks of addiction and dangers of overdose associated with the medication.
Senate Bill 1368 implements the Safe Opioid Prescribing Curriculum in all of Pennsylvania’s medical schools. The plan calls for a focus in four key areas including pain management; multimodal treatments for chronic pain that minimize the use of opioids, or when opioids are indicated, to prescribe them in a way that is safe and that follows guideline-based care; focusing on patients who have been identified as at-risk for developing problems with prescription opioids; and teaching medical students how to manage substance abuse disorders as a chronic disease.
The bills now go to the House of Representatives for consideration.
In June, the Senate approved Senate Bill 1202, a measure that requires licensed medication dispensers and prescribers to receive two hours of continuing education in pain management or in the prescribing practices of opioids.
The Senate also approved a Drug and Alcohol Recovery High School Pilot Program to provide instruction meeting state academic standards for students in grades 9 through 12 who are in recovery from drug or alcohol abuse or addiction. The measure was included as part of the School Code passed as part of the state budget package.
On Wednesday, the governor convened a joint session of the legislature to outline priorities this fall to fight the ongoing heroin and opioid epidemic.
Over the last several months, I’ve attended local meetings with experts who are dedicated to fighting this issue that has brought pain and suffering to too many families.
Last week, I joined several senators, a panel of experts and nearly 20,000 residents from northeastern Pennsylvania to discuss steps the legislature is taking to remedy the situation during a special telephone town hall event. You can listen to my remarks from that special town hall meeting here.
After the joint session with the governor on Wednesday, I told Amanda VanAllen of WFMZ that I think what the governor wants is feasible. This issue impacts every person in this state.
Watch my interview here.
Senate Majority Policy Committee explores demographic trends in Pennsylvania
On Tuesday, the Senate Majority Policy Committee held a public hearing to review changes and trends in demographics across the state and nation. The hearing featured experts from the University of Pennsylvania, Penn State University and University of Pittsburgh.
I’ve come across articles over the last few months that piqued my interest in the topic, especially as it relates to recovery from the Great Recession. I wrote about this issue in an earlier email update to you – rural America recovers from economic downturns at a slower rate than urban America. (You can read that email update here.)
One quote from that story worth repeating is from Alan Greenblatt, the article’s author, in which he states, “Lots of rural towns around the country have come to resemble villages in wartime,” in reference to rural America’s struggle to recover from a recession. He writes that the fear is that these rural communities are either going to get wiped off the map or they will get smaller and smaller without a plan for sustainability.
During the hearing, I noted that too often, the legislature is too busy addressing the problems of today that we fail to look to long-term solutions to our problems.
The first testifier, Dr. Jennifer Van Hook, who serves as the Director of Population Research Institute and is a Professor of Sociology and Demography at Penn State University, noted our senior population statistics. By percentage, Pennsylvania had the second-oldest population, however, we are currently ranked fifth – falling below Florida, Maine, West Virginia and a tie with Vermont.
She stressed that our population is aging because of two major trends:
We often equate population growth to sustainability, but did you know that one of Pennsylvania’s cities is the exception – the only exception in the country? Pittsburgh’s population is shrinking AND they are improving.
Dr. John D. Landis, who is the Chair of the University of Pennsylvania’s City and Regional Planning; and Dr. Maureen McClure, who is an associate professor of Administrative and Policy Studies at the University of Pittsburgh also testified.
Testifiers highlighted various trends using PowerPoint presentations with charts and graphs I think you may find interesting. You can view those here.
On a positive note, Dr. McClure noted that Pennsylvania is better off than many states facing these systemic concerns.
Next year, I plan to hold similar hearings to review demographic changes and its impact on rural Pennsylvania communities and urban communities. While I believe these shifts impact all of Pennsylvania, these shifts impact rural parts of our state differently than urban areas, and vice-versa.
State publication highlights Mahanoy City
While my key legislative priority remains school property tax elimination, I want to highlight why a large portion of my legislative agenda includes efforts to fight blight in our older communities. The 29th Senatorial District is very diverse. Several communities have felt the adverse impact of the decline in the anthracite coal industry. Shenandoah in Schuylkill County, for example, has lost 80 percent of its population since the peak of coal in the early 1900s. As mentioned earlier regarding demographics, the continual decline in population leads to major problems, especially for rural communities.
Last week, Keystone Crossroads: Rust or Revival, a statewide public media collaboration focused on issues facing Pennsylvania’s cities, published a story written by Emily Previti, who is WITF’s reporter for Keystone Crossroads, titled, “Fixing Mahanoy City: Why this Pa. coal town won’t survive without shifting its tax base.” I think you will find the article interesting as it highlights the many struggles facing our old coal towns.
SEPTEMBER 22, 2016
Fixing Mahanoy City: Why this Pa. coal town won’t survive without shifting its tax base
BY EMILY PREVITI, WITF
Thirty distressed municipalities have turned to the state for help finding their financial footing through a program known as Act 47.
The latest is Mahanoy City, a 4,000-person borough in Pennsylvania's Coal Region.
After years of borrowing money and scaling back services, officials finally sought help when they risked defaulting on loans taken just to prevent a local government shutdown.
Consultants have been working on a financial recovery plan since the beginning of this year.
The draft version is 128 pages long, but is driven by something easily seen with a quick tour through Mahanoy City:
Half a block of burnt out row homes on Center Street.
The former high school looming over a steep outdoor staircase, now fronted by sawhorses, where students once made the daily climb up hundreds of steps.
There's an abandoned warehouse where cars tend to linger a bit too long, a brewery crumbling into Main Street, and just outside town, a partially dismantled coal breaker that was the state's last operating.
Blight, according to borough manager Dan Lynch, is the community's biggest problem, detracting from the aesthetic and creating public health and safety risks.
"Private property owners, when they fail and there's no one left to act, then it becomes the borough's duty to act," Lynch says. "It's so expensive. I mean, it's tremendously expensive. It costs double what you could buy a house for in this town to tear one down."
Coal region trajectory
The going rate for a house is less than $10,000; a recent row home demolition cost $24,000, Lynch says.
Mahanoy City wasn't always like this, Lynch says.
"At one point in the history of this town, there were [over a hundred] bars. There was one for every 98 people. So, they called it, you know, like 'The Drinking Capital of the World,'" Lynch says. "Way back then, you know people working in the mines, a lot of them didn't have a home. And they might've rented a bed. And they'd spend a shift in the bed, a shift in the bar, a shift in the mine."
The population peaked in the 1920s at 15,000 people.
Now, it's 4,000.
"My brother-in-law used to come up (he lives in Philadelphia) and he'd sleep til 1:30 in the afternoon, and he'd be, like, it's like a sensory deprivation chamber," Lynch says.
Lynch seems to like that Mahanoy City's quiet.
But it's also sort of a symptom of the coal region trajectory.
Orphaned by the industry, a town loses residents and its tax base, with no change in the size of the area that needs policing, fire protection and infrastructure maintenance.
The local government's still responsible for that, plus cleaning up after private parties who've cut their losses.
Mahanoy City's vacancy rate is 26 percent, the highest of all Act 47 towns.
"We've come to find that you’re not legally obligated to take a home if your relative were to pass or …if it were to fall to you," Lynch says. "So, we’ve had people who literally say, 'I want nothing to do with it.'"
The suggested fix
Consultant Gerry Cross says the negative impact of abandoned and/or dilapidated properties on real estate values is particularly critical because state law makes them the main source of operating revenue for local governments.
"The rules that we're operating under ... don't recognize the shift in the taxable base," says Cross, who heads the Pennsylvania Economy League's midstate office. "I think you're seeing the tail end of ... I don't want to say the life cycle of the municipality, but the tail end of a lot of these municipalities to be able to operate under ... the structures available to them."
Cross says the plan needs Borough Council approval, but is expected to stand pretty much as is.
As in most towns, public safety is the biggest cost. But Cross says he won't recommend dissolving the police department. That would shift the public safety burden to the State Police, at no cost to the borough, but Cross says he's one of thecritics who say the practice isn't fair or sustainable.
And while the borough might not have a lot of residents, he says, it's not a rural area and it's far too densely populated for state police coverage to suffice. Not to mention, residents "wouldn't stand for it," he says.
Cross says Mahanoy City should consider home rule, which would afford more taxing flexibility.
Plenty of Act 47 towns get the same advice, for similar reasons, and some take it. But there's an important distinction here.
By the time most municipalities get into Act 47, their property tax rate is already as high as it can be, under state law.
But not in Mahanoy City, in part because the collection rate is around 70 percent.
"That's one of the worst we've seen," Cross says. "They eventually get their money, ... but that's a disaster for the municipality, [in the meantime, because] they don't have cash to operate."
Cross says having tax sales more often might help, which would require the cooperation of the Schuylkill County government.
But even if officials could reasonably expect to collect in full, real estate values are too low to generate much money.
Which brings us to his next recommendation: Increase income taxes. Cross says he's recommending the shift not only because real estate taxes won't generate much more money right now, but also because the borough has "a healthy base of population in the working years, [ages] 18 to 64."
Keystone Crossroads' analysis of Census data shows that, basically, people are dying off faster than they're moving away in most Act 47 towns.
Since 1990, Mahanoy City's population loss has been most dramatic among residents over the age of 65, and the median age has dropped.
But working-age doesn't necessarily mean working or earning a living wage.
Median household and per capita incomes have grown in Mahanoy City, but only by 3 percent. That's less than a tenth of the rate in the surrounding county and statewide.
Emily Seiger sees that borne out daily at Mahanoy Area School District, where she's a secretary and every week when she helps feed the borough's hungry residents through a ministry known as God's Chuckwagon, often hoping food doesn't run out.
"I was naive to how many people were really in need. And when I decided to do outreach, like, I would see a little more and a little more and through school I would see a little more," Seiger says.
Lynch says a nearby concrete panel manufacturer offers decent wages. But it opened 15 years ago, and not many major employers have landed since. Lynch says the last potential project to spark some hope was a cargo airport in Luzerne County, but that's "now dead"after a decade-long legal battle.
"Something ... where it's going to be 1,000 jobs or 1,500 jobs, would be huge for this area," Lynch says.
Act 47 tries to stabilize local governments in financial crisis through low-interest loans and engaging consultants like Cross.
That's just to prevent municipal governments from folding, though, to enable them to continue doing the basics.
Lasting economic recovery or thriving, as Lynch knows, hinges on changes beyond its borders.
And, certainly, beyond any Act 47 plan.
You can access the story here.
Welfare flaws highlighted by Auditor General, shows need for more reforms
On Thursday, State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale released the findings of his audit that found over a one-year period, more than 2,300 deceased Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cardholders received payments.
Over the 12-month review, the auditor general found that 2,324 individuals received $693,161 in payments.
According to the auditor general’s audit, the Department of Human Services is requiring its caseworkers to take immediate action. However, his report highlights the fraud that continues to occur in our state’s largest department.
In his report, he highlighted out-of-state EBT card use. From 2013-2015, he found that $70 million of public assistance is being spent out-of-state on an annual basis. This is roughly two percent of the total $3.4 billion distributed each year in EBT benefits. Over the three-year period, 75 percent of the activity in other states was conducted in our six neighboring states. However, he highlighted out-of-state purchases by those in need in Florida ($14 million), North Carolina ($6 million), Hawaii ($97,575) and Alaska ($45,262).
He noted that there are roughly 1 million EBT cardholders in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania’s total population is 12.7 million.
These flaws identified by the auditor general highlight the need for more investigations into the welfare waste, fraud, abuse and misuse. I am sponsoring legislation with Senator Ryan Aument (R-Lancaster) to hire additional staff within the Office of Inspector General with a sole focus of investigating claims about welfare misconduct. Each welfare investigator within the Office of Inspector General saves taxpayers approximately $1.28 million.
I said it in July and I’ll say it again: Our state and federal welfare programs have been exploited by those who make a living on cheating the system. We are saying enough is enough. The taxpayers have had enough of giving too many people defrauding the system a free ride.
Read more about our efforts to stop this abuse of YOUR tax dollars here.
Special license plate for military members sent to governor
I am pleased to report that the Senate gave final approval on Monday to a bill that recognizes and honors Pennsylvania’s military personnel and sent the measure to the governor for enactment into law.
Senate Bill 1155 establishes a special vehicle license plate for members of the United States Armed Forces adding special recognition for current members of the military, reserves, and Pennsylvania National Guard. This would be in addition to the currently available license plates with special recognition for World War II veterans, Purple Heart recipients and Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans.
Two additional bills received final legislative approval this week and were sent to the governor.
House Bill 380 reduces the mandatory separation period that is required prior to entry of a no-fault divorce from two years to one year.
House Bill 665 makes technical changes to Title 20 (Decedents, Estates and Fiduciaries) concerning powers of attorney.
Senate approves cybersecurity bill
With reports of hacking appearing in the news on an almost daily basis, the Senate acted on Wednesday to ensure citizens will be expeditiously notified if their information in state databases is compromised.
Senate Bill 1048, which updates Pennsylvania’s Breach of Personal Information Notification Act, now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration. Specifically, the measure sets the following:
Senate Bill 1048 now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration. Nine additional bills were approved by the Senate this week and sent to the House.
Senate Bill 340 amends the Local Government Unit Debt Act to provide adequate regulatory oversight and enforcement.
Senate Bill 341 amends the Municipality Authorities Act and the Public Official and Employee Ethics Act to coordinate the conflict of interest provisions as they relate to municipal authorities.
Senate Bill 344 requires 100 percent security from a contractor prior to the awarding of a contract for the construction, reconstruction, alteration or repair of any public building or other public work or public improvement where the contract exceeds $10,000.
Senate Bill 869 amends Titles 4 (Amusements), 18 (Crimes and Offenses), 30 (Fish), 42 (Judiciary and Judicial Procedure) and 75 (Vehicles) of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes to address the seizure and forfeiture of property that is related to criminal offenses.
Senate Bill 1086 provides for the display of registration plates and for surrender of registration plates and cards upon suspension or revocation and providing for suspension of registration upon unpaid tolls and, in fees, further providing for reinstatement of operating privilege or vehicle registration.
Senate Bill 1341 establishes a performance-based budget component to enhance and improve budget development and decision making associated with the annual budget process.
Senate Bill 1352 provides a rate increase for the river pilots who navigate along the Delaware River and its navigable tributaries.
Senate Bill 1353 permits the Navigation Commission for the Delaware River and its Navigable Tributaries to increase fees for the issuance of original and renewed pilots’ licenses.
Committee passes bill to prohibit use of drones over certain facilities in PA
The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved my bill that would penalize unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operators for flying their aircraft over certain facilities in Pennsylvania.
As this technology becomes more readily available at a price point most consumers can afford, we need to make sure that no one is using these machines in a way that would jeopardize the life and safety of Pennsylvanians. This commonsense approach mirrors efforts in other states in order to safeguard citizens.
During a Senate Majority Policy Committee public hearing earlier this year, the Department of Corrections pointed to examples in other states where UAV operators dropped illegal contraband over prison yards.
The legislation was the result of testimony presented in March on the issue. In addition to the Department of Corrections, other testifiers included the National Conference of State Legislatures, Joint State Government Commission, Pennsylvania Chemical Industry Council, Pennsylvania State Police, Department of Transportation and the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Read more about my proposal here.