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Senator Judy Schwank Good day!

I hope your summer is off to a good start.

As you may know, we finished Pennsylvania’s 2013-2014 budget just before the July 4th holiday and now the legislature is in its “summer break.” I’m here to tell you, though, I have been and plan to be very busy in the coming weeks visiting businesses, meeting with constituents, and learning more about how I can help you and all residents of the 11th Senatorial District enjoy a better quality of life.

On top of the daily work, I will continue meeting five more times with the Special Education Funding Commission to find a better way for Pennsylvania to distribute special education dollars. This is an expensive budget item for school districts and the funding from the state has not kept pace with rising costs.

I thank you for your continued input and support and hope your summer is one to remember!

Sen. Judy Schwank

Budget Recap

CapitolIt’s true: Pennsylvania’s new budget was signed into law as it was constitutionally required to be. It’s also true that it does not raise taxes. However, the $28.4 billion spending plan continues to place downward pressure on local governments and school districts in Berks County and throughout the state and it fails to address one of the biggest financial crises of all time: pensions. The budget also missed the mark on job creation, it botched the opportunity to restore critical funding for education, and it did nothing to end property taxes.

Because of these reasons, the budget won my “no” vote.

The budget has too many misguided priorities and it fails to assist the people who truly need Pennsylvania’s help the most. Our social safety net has more holes in it today than ever before and the $28.4 billion we plan to spend in the coming fiscal year, while a lot, will not be in the areas that will set Pennsylvania apart from other states.

We have begun the process to change the name of the Department of Welfare to the Department of Health and Human Services but we also need to change the way we do business in the department. It is critical that we not waste funds to ensure that the dollars we spend are used as intended and where most needed.

Our state-owned and state-related universities received level funding from the commonwealth and as a result of deep cuts two budgets ago are forced to raise tuition again. I worry that we may be placing a college education out of reach for too many students. Equally disconcerting is that community colleges, the gateways to higher education and critically important workforce training centers, have not seen a funding increase in three years.

If we don’t begin to allocate our resources the right way, Pennsylvania will suffer for decades to come.

Medicaid Expansion Shenanigans

HealthcareI believed we had finally found a way to provide health care insurance for more than half a million Pennsylvanians when the Senate overwhelmingly approved a proposal to expand Medicaid. The idea fell silent, unfortunately, when House Republicans stripped it from the proposal.

Entering the state into the federal Medicaid expansion program continues to be a no-brainer for me, (probably) you, and many observers.

Not only will Washington pay to operate the program for the next three years, Medicaid expansion will provide health care for many working-poor Pennsylvanians and create thousands of jobs.

This is something that must happen, and I am hoping it will finally happen as soon as we return to Harrisburg in September.

Help for PA’s Cities, Emergency Responders

It’s good to report that legislation I proposed to save money for emergency responders and provide an economic shot in the arm for Pennsylvania’s cities, including Reading, was successfully adopted by the General Assembly and sent to the governor for his approval.

City Revitalization Improvement Zones will enable new investment in local economies by redeveloping eligible vacant, blighted and/or abandoned properties for commercial, exhibition, hospitality, conference, retail community or other mixed-use purposes.

First RespondersHelp for emergency responders would come in the form of a property transfer tax exemption for fire companies and other emergency response companies when they merge or consolidate.

I introduced the latter proposal soon after I learned that when the Barto, Bally and Bechtelsville fire companies merged to form the Eastern Berks Fire Department they received a $17,000 transfer tax bill after deeding their stations to the new company.

The exemption means Eastern Berks and other emergency responders that consolidate to save money and improve services will be able to invest the bad transfer tax into efforts to increase public safety.

Property Tax Reform

Property Tax/Rent Rebate Property Tax/Rent Rebate School property tax reform has been talked about in Harrisburg for more than 40 years. Since taking office in 2011, I have repeatedly said I will support any plan -- Republican or Democratic -- that will eliminate property taxes in a manner that is fair and equitable.

Well, we now have a property tax elimination proposal that is fair and equitable and will prevent the unfair levy from continuing to force out people from the homes they own – and have owned, in many cases – for a lifetime.

Senate Bill 76 is the vehicle for a workable proposal that will replace the $10.4 billion collected every year in school property taxes with new revenue generated by small increases in sales and personal income taxes.

Currently, SB 76 is being reviewed by the Independent Fiscal Office to confirm that the tax shift proposed within the legislation will adequately fund education. The report is expected to be finished early this fall. I will continue to work with my colleagues in the Senate on a bi-partisan basis to help get this legislation over the finish line.

It’s time we get beyond the rhetoric and help people.