WILKES-BARRE — The state Department of Environmental Protection warns that cuts to environmental and public health programs in the proposed budget from House Republicans could put air and water quality at risk.
In a letter to the chairmen of the House and Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committees, Secretary Patrick McDonnell outlined six key ways the proposed budget would impact public health, safety, and economic development.
“A spending cut of this magnitude — unfocused and on top of the changes we have already proposed and the cuts we have received, including a reduction of 754 positions over the past decade — would put Pennsylvania’s environmental and public health at risk,” McDonnell said.
Among the impacts of the proposed budget would be:
• 600 fewer inspections of public water systems, which provide clean drinking water to 83 percent of the state population.
• Fewer underground mine inspectors who ensure safe working conditions for Pennsylvania’s coal miners.
• Longer wait times for permit reviews, slowing down economic development and undercutting improvements DEP has made to the permit review process.
A fee package that would increase and implement new fees on public water systems has been introduced to fund additional staff for the program. In December 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned DEP that continued staff shortages and under-investment in the program could lead to Pennsylvania losing primacy over the program. Loss of primacy would strip DEP’s authority to regulate drinking water, as well as remove millions in funding for communities to upgrade their safe drinking water facilities.
In addition to the cuts outlined in the letter, McDonnell noted that possible cuts to DEP’s budget from federal sources would further exacerbate these issues. Combined, funding cuts at the state and federal level would hamper infrastructure projects and the jobs that those projects create.
Cartwright introduces bill to
revitalize local communities
U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Moosic, this week introduced legislation to stimulate economic growth within distressed communities.
First introduced by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, the Community Economic Assistance Act provides assistance to communities experiencing a localized recession resulting from substantial job loss or economic transitions.
The bill would allow states to designate communities working through a localized recession as Community Economic Assistance Zones. It provides up to $200 million in funding to these zones, along with tax incentives to employers and to regional governments, to support existing local businesses, creation of new businesses, and funds to develop and execute a comprehensive regional economic development strategy.
To qualify as a Community Economic Assistance Zone, a community must have experienced a large job loss (250 jobs or more), transitioned away from an energy-based economy, experienced a significant localized recession, or been significantly impacted by trade.
Under the bill, a Community Economic Assistance Zone is eligible for:
• Up to $100 million in New Market Tax Credits to lure investors.
• Tax credits to employers who hire locally.
• A $100 million, 100 percent tax credit bond that acts as a 0 percent interest loan.
Shapiro takes action to protect
Pennsylvanians with student loans
Attorney General Josh Shapiro this week took legal action to keep in place critical reforms that protect college students from abusive loan practices by for-profit schools and other institutions.
Shapiro joined eight other attorneys general in filing a motion to intervene in a case currently in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The case involves the U.S. Department of Education’s Borrower Defense Regulations, issued by the Obama administration in November to help students avoid default and curtail loan servicer misconduct.
The regulations provide protections for federal student loan borrowers against abusive practices by schools and colleges, including for-profit companies, and assist in enforcing state consumer protection laws.
The regulations at issue allow student loan borrowers to have their debt forgiven if they were victims of deceptive practices by their school or college, such as misrepresenting job placement rates at the school.
The attorneys general filed their motion following recent actions by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Some say DeVos’ department is not fully committed to defending the already-finalized regulations, set to become effective July 1.
According to a letter sent earlier this year to Secretary DeVos by Attorney General Shapiro and 20 other attorneys general, students are struggling under the weight of their student loan debt. In 2015, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau estimated more than 25 percent of student loan borrowers were delinquent or in default on a student loan.
Wolf hosts Scranton forum
on financial help for seniors
Gov. Tom Wolf this week joined Department of Banking and Securities Secretary Robin L. Wiessmann and Department of Aging Secretary Teresa Osborne to discuss measures the Wolf Administration has taken to help protect senior citizens from financial scams and fraud.
Wolf said elder financial abuse is one of the most significant financial crimes of the 21st century, and it is estimated to cost older Americans $36 billion each year.
During a panel discussion at the South Side Senior Center in Scranton, Wolf pointed specifically to “PA $AFE,” an information exchange and clearinghouse created as part of the governor’s Consumer Financial Protection Initiative, which involves over 20 state government agencies engaged in financial education and consumer protection activities.
In November 2015, Wolf announced the Consumer Financial Protection Initiative “in order to educate the public about financial protection and best practices in a concise, efficient way.”
Senior citizens, their caregivers, or family members with questions about financial transactions can call the Department of Banking and Securities at 1-800-PA-BANKS. The department also maintains an online library of resources to help consumers learn to protect themselves at: www.dobs.pa.gov.
Mullery backs legislation
to help club licensees
State Rep. Gerald Mullery, D-Newport Township, said the state House of Representatives this week passed legislation that would raise the fundraising thresholds for club licensees under the Local Option Small Games of Chance Act.
The threshold under which clubs could retain 100 percent of money raised through small games of chance would rise from $20,000 to $30,000 if proceeds are $60,000 or less annually, an increase from $40,000.
The annual proceeds increase is similarly laid out in legislation introduced last month by Mullery.
In addition to raising that cap, an amendment to H.B. 864 would raise the trigger for submitting an annual report to the Department of Revenue when proceeds from games of chance exceed $30,000, an increase of $10,000.
The underlying bill (H.B. 864) would allow the state’s six international airports to conduct 50/50 drawings with the proceeds to be donated to a charitable organization.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.