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What’s in the budget, Guv’na?

Yesterday, Governor Tom Corbett unveiled his budget proposal which will inevitably be tinkered and toyed with until the General Assembly passes their final version in the end of June, but it made clear the hopes and dreams of Governor Corbett in the coming fiscal year.

Last year, Corbett proposed major cuts to education and paid for it with his approval rating. He hasn’t made the same mistake this year. Corbett proposed a 1.7 percent increase to basic education funding and promised $1.6 billion to higher education. However, these funding increases are not yet a foregone conclusion. The spending increase is tied to several other reform projects that Corbett has his eye on. Education funding will be tied to the privatization of state liquor stores, a greatly debated issue in the past few years. Without this reform, budget officials say that major cuts are inevitable. Public schools would be forced to choose between increasing their taxes, cutting their programs or an unfortunate combination of the two.

Funding for transportation will also be increased in a similar deal. Over the next five years, $5.3 billion is to be invested in transit with $510 million immediately going to highway and bridge projects if the legislature votes to reform the state pension system. The proposed reform would do nothing to reduce the benefits that current employees have already paid, but the future of their plan would switch to a 401(k) program in which they allocate 6.25 percent of their salary to their retirement benefits. New state employees would enter the pension system with this program in place.

New employees to the state may be sparse though; Corbett’s budget includes the elimination of 900 positions, including 400 layoffs. Most of these staff reductions will come from the Department of General Services, the Health Department and Public Welfare. In Human Services news, Corbett has proposed $6.1 million to transition patients at state facilities to community placements.

Despite the spending increases, this budget proposal is also business friendly. It eliminates the Capital Stock and Franchise Tax, reduces the Corporate Net Income Tax and repeals the Corporate Loan Tax. Small businesses certainly weren’t left out of business benefits either. They are now eligible to a $5,000 tax deduction for start-up businesses and access to a new team within the Department of Community and Economic Development that will provide advice on how to best utilize state and local incentives to increase the success rate of new businesses. The Pennsylvania Business Development Authority will consolidate eight loan programs into one large pool of $1.1 billion loan funds.

The Republicans control both the state house and senate, but it is unlikely that Corbett will get everything that he asked for in this proposal. However, it will certainly shape the debate in the coming months before the 2012-2013 fiscal year expires.

Read the full version here!

State of the Lehigh Valley

Thank you to everyone who attended the “State of the Lehigh Valley” lunch event on February 15th, and a special thanks again to our sponsors, without whom this event would not have been possible:  Highmark Blue Shield, Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation, Capital Blue Cross, PPL, Air Products, Susquehanna Bank, Lehigh University’s Social Science Research Center, Just Born, Inc., Spillman Farmer Architects, and the United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley!

With President Obama recently delivering his State of the Union address and Governor Corbett giving us the state of the commonwealth budget, it is an appropriate time to consider the “State of the LehighValley.” (To read the report: State of the Lehigh Valley 2011.) Last year the Lehigh Valley Research Consortium (LVRC) partnered with Renew LehighValley (RenewLV) to present “State of the Lehigh Valley 2010: Community Trends at a Glance” to an audience of 250 concerned LehighValley residents.

 This year’s presentation of the 2011 data focused on the livability of the LehighValley as measured by indicators like health, economics, education, environment, and quality of life standards. This year’s results suggest that the LehighValley “is in a better position economically and socially than in the recent past” even though most will agree that there are still many challenges to overcome before we can boast of regional prosperity.  The luncheon was very participatory, with audience members providing their perspectives about the LehighValley’s competitiveness, public schools, disparities in access to health care, air quality, jobs, housing, and quality of life using a hand-held electronic response system, thus allowing for real time results. There were community experts in attendance to facilitate discussion based on these results.

The LehighValley is a very diverse collection of 62 municipalities and 17 public school districts within two of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, all acting independently to govern and lead in the best interest of each area’s residents. While it is the uniqueness of each area that makes it pleasing to its inhabitants, the similarities from one municipality to the other and how they assimilate to form the Lehigh Valley is a natural progression of governance and decision-making, unnoticed by most who live here.

 In looking at just one section of data from the report, one sees that the Lehigh Valley’s current unemployment rate is higher than the Pennsylvania average, but lower than New Jersey and the national average, and our job growth is also below the rate of growth of Pennsylvania as a whole. On the other hand, average weekly wages in the LehighValley are higher than the state average but lower than New Jersey and the national average, and LehighValley residents as a group had higher median household incomes than the state and the nation. The report highlights how educational attainment is tied to this data. Perhaps a surprising statistic, graduation rates are not very different when economically disadvantaged student rates are compared to overall graduation rates, and in some districts the rate of graduation is higher among the economically disadvantaged students.

What does this mean?  Well, 90 percent of all residents surveyed rated the LehighValley as either good or excellent with regard to living in this area.  In light of the dissatisfaction with the economic situation, this is a significant statistic. It is indicative of the many great things the LehighValley offers its residents that are above and beyond dollars and cents: a relatively low crime rate, good public schools, easy access to goods and services, and a great network of hospitals and health care professionals. All of these are highlighted in the report.

I’m going to borrow a thought from this Sunday’s sermon (hope you don’t mind Father Steve) and if you have ever played sports, you will appreciate this. Were you ever a bench warmer?  Did you like sitting on the bench?  Or for that matter, if you were a starter, did you like coming out and watching from the sidelines?  I bet the answer is no. You wanted to be involved, to make your mark, to influence the outcome of the contest, to be heard and noticed.

Well now is your chance to do that for your community, our community, the community we all call home. Whether you live in the northern-most point of the Slate Belt or the west end of Allentown, you are a LehighValley resident and the health and well-being of our residents and our cities and boroughs is your business and your voice should be heard.  Time to get off the bench. Time to get involved. This is your opportunity to be in the starting five.  Take it and join the discussion.

New Environmental Education Center Coming to Lehigh Valley

Saucon Valley School District will soon be home to a new environmental education center. Well, not soon-soon, but plans are underway by the Saucon Valley Foundation for Education Innovation. The Express Times reports:

The nonprofit foundation, organized by parents, community and business leaders, plans to hire the LandConcepts Group to create a $8,950 master plan for the center along the creek adjacent to Polk Valley Road.

Initial lower-cost ideas being floated for the site include student-built birdhouses, tree identification markers, a garden or a weather station with a rain gauge that could be used in the school.

Exciting project and a great new addition to the Lehigh Valley.

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