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Essential Public Pension Reform in Hands of the Governor
Last week, the General Assembly took a major step to control the runaway costs of Pennsylvania’s public pension systems with the passage of Senate Bill 1 .
Pension costs increase every year and the burden takes state resources away from important programs and services and ultimately falls upon taxpayers through higher school tax bills. Reform of the current system is the only answer. I was extremely pleased to vote to move the reforms contained in Senate Bill 1 on to the Governor’s desk.
Senate Bill 1 will ultimately provide $11 billion in savings as the state and school districts shift from a costly defined benefit pension system into one that is more in line with the (defined contribution) 401k systems that are the norm for companies across Pennsylvania. This would impact new employees only. Retirees would see no change in their benefits.
In fact, the only current employees impacted by Senate Bill 1 would be elected officials, who would be moved into the defined contribution system upon reelection. That’s a move I’ve pushed for – and introduced legislation on – for several years. If we want change, it’s only fair that legislators lead by example.
Now, it’s up to the Governor to act and I hope he will keep the best interests of Pennsylvania’s citizens in mind by signing Senate Bill 1. You can make your views on this matter known to the Governor by contacting him through his website at: www.governor.pa.gov/contact/.
“Clean and Green” Offers Alternative Assessment for Open Spaces
As Indiana County residents come to grips with the impact of the county’s first real estate assessment in nearly 50 years, I want to make you aware of a state program that provides an alternative assessment for larger tracts of farm or forest land.
Each year, the state Department of Agriculture provides counties with a set assessment value for properties in the “Clean and Green” program. These state assessments are traditionally lower than county assessment values for non-agricultural, non-forest land.
To be eligible for the “Clean and Green” designation a property must be at least 10 acres in size, and in Agricultural Use, Agricultural Reserve, or Forest Reserve. Agricultural Use applications may be less than 10 acres in size if the property is capable of generating at least $2,000 annually in farm income.
Click here for more information about the program is available at: .
Applications for the program should be submitted through county tax assessment offices. For Indiana County properties, the application is available at: http://www.countyofindiana.org/reassessment/.
Taxpayer Empowerment and Accountability Act Needed
As residents of Indiana County grapple with the recent reassessment notices, we must recognize the underlying issue - the overall burden of property taxes is driven by the cost of running local government, primarily school districts.
First, it’s important to realize the current Indiana County Commissioners have the unenviable task of updating a reassessment system that is almost 50 years old and was beyond antiquated. Had they not acted, the reassessment likely would have been forced upon them by a court order and would have made the process even worse. They are working within the confines of the current system and are truly doing their best under difficult circumstances.
Moving beyond the process, it’s also important to keep in mind the basis for these costs. On average, of the property tax bill paid by landowners in Indiana County: 70 percent goes to school districts, 23 percent to county government, and 7 percent to municipal government.
Ultimately the school property tax burden must be addressed. And while that can be partly accomplished by shifting the tax burden away from real estate and on to other taxes such as income and sales, that’s only half the equation. In the end the burden remains on the taxpayer.
If enacted, SB 909 would require any future real estate tax increases levied by school districts to be ratified by voter referendum. I believe taxpayers must be empowered by having the final decision on real estate tax increases through a referendum process that cannot be bypassed by allowing for inflationary increases or automatic exemptions for certain costs.
Without a strong voter referendum in place, school districts can continue raising taxes despite any efforts we make to increase education funding, restrain pension contributions and provide property tax relief to homeowners.
Cost containment must be part of the property tax relief solution, otherwise any relief provided will be short-lived. If voters believe an increase in their real estate taxes is warranted to fund their schools, they should be empowered with making that decision and at the same time accept accountability for the increased tax burden.
While opponents of real referenda claim voters will always reject tax increases, data from other states that require voter approval of such increases do not support that view. In fact, evidence clearly shows that voters are willing to approve school tax and spending increases when they are convinced they are worthwhile and will be used responsibly.
My legislation not only empowers voters, but makes them more accountable for the educational environment in their own communities, while requiring school districts to convince the public the product being provided is worth additional taxpayer investment.
Marcellus Shale Plays a Key Role in the 41st District
Over the past several months there has been a lot of talk in Harrisburg and around the state about whether the Marcellus Shale industry is paying its “fair share” in Pennsylvania.
The opinions are definitely divided. It seems the further you go away from the actual wellheads, the more sharply people think the Governor’s proposed extraction tax is a good idea.
The people who don’t realize the impact the drop in natural gas prices has already had on the industry need only ask our neighbors here in Indiana County who will be affected when Halliburton closes its local plant. Instead, a colleague from Philadelphia who supports the Governor’s tax claimed I was shedding “crocodile tears” for the shale industry when I talked about those job losses during the Senate’s consideration of the state budget. You can click here to watch a video of my comments.
The fact is, shale has provided jobs and it has provided revenue for our counties and local governments. More than $7.4 million in revenue was recently distributed to counties and municipalities in the 41st Senatorial District in accordance with the Marcellus Shale Impact Fee legislation, Act 13 of 2012.
The impact fee legislation requires that approximately $25.5 million of the annual revenue go to state agencies to offset the statewide impact of drilling. These agencies include the State Conservation Commission, County Conservation Districts, PA Fish & Boat Commission, PA Emergency Management Agency, Office of State Fire Commissioners, PA Department of Transportation, Natural Gas Energy Development, Housing Affordability & Rehab Enforcement Fund, PUC and DEP.
After that initial $25.5 million is deducted, 60 percent of the remaining funds is sent to counties and municipalities where drilling takes place. Counties and municipalities may utilize the funds in several ways, including for roadways, public safety, environmental programs, agriculture preservation and career and technical job training.
The remaining 40 percent is placed into the Marcellus Legacy Fund which serves as funding for statewide initiatives with local impacts. The Marcellus Legacy Fund includes the Commonwealth Financing Authority, Environmental Stewardship Fund, Highway Bridge Improvement Fund, PENNVEST and H2O Program and the Department of Community & Economic Development.
Under Act 13, the money from shale is equitably divided to protect the environment and to benefit the areas where the drilling would take place.
The Governor’s proposed extraction tax would scrap that formula, cap the local share – regardless of any increase in drilling activity, and send the majority of the money to Harrisburg to decide where and how it could be used.
That, as you can imagine, is a plan that I cannot support.
Act 13 disbursements in the 41st Senatorial District for 2015
Enjoy our local fairs
One of the best parts of summer around here is the opportunity to spend the day at one of our local fairs. I am looking forward to visiting several over the next few weeks, including the Dayton Fair (August 16-22), the Indiana County Fair (August 29-September 5), the Ox Hill Community Fair (September 7-12) and the Cookport Fair (September 13-19). I encourage everyone to come on out with your friends and neighbors and enjoy a local fair.
PUC Releases New Guide to Consumer Complaint Process
The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) recently released a new Consumer Complaint Procedures Guide, designed to educate consumers about the Commission’s complaint process. The consumer guide details the differences between filing an informal versus a formal complaint; provide an explanation of the complaint filing process; and include information on how to find important forms online.
From January through June, the PUC’s Bureau of Consumer Services received approximately 45,000 consumer inquiries and of those about 30,000 cases have become informal complaint investigations. The Commission received 1,122 formal complaints since January.
Mark your calendar
State Representative Tim Krieger and I will co-host a Senior Expo on Wednesday, July 15, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Delmont Volunteer Fire Department Social Hall, 2360 State Route 66, Delmont. Representatives at this free event will provide information on numerous subjects of interest to older residents including health care, health screenings, insurance, nutrition & fitness, fire safety, personal safety, banking and local, state and federal agency information and more. Free refreshments will be provided. For more information, please call my Murrysville District Office at (724) 327-2422 or (724) 834-6400.
286 Main Capitol