Pennsylvania State House of Representatives

 Update on “special funds”

In the waning days of the summer, I was privileged to work with a group of House colleagues who uncovered non-performing excess funds being held by various state agencies. These “special funds” totaled more than $12 billion. Although much of the money in the special funds was pledged or otherwise encumbered, over $3 billion appeared to have no such obligations that would prevent the state from using them to cover the hole left by the June budget spending plan. Officials at state agencies, which house these funds, were defensive and made claims that they could not be used; however, no genuine evidence was produced to verify those claims. It looked to us as though powerful officials were merely protecting the funds for use on their own pet projects.

The House Appropriations Committee announced that it will hold a series of hearings this month specifically on the special funds as a follow-up to our budget group’s work. At these hearings, the first of which will be held on Thursday, agency heads will be pressed to provide definitive evidence of the extent and use of the special funds which their respective agencies retain. I look forward to finally getting to the bottom of these billions of dollars of non-performing funds.

Legislative pay

The legislative clerk recently announced that the pay received by Pennsylvania state legislators would increase by about $700, bringing the legislative salaries to approximately $87,200. Legislative, executive and judicial branch wages float annually on the rate of inflation, based on the Consumer Price Index change in Philadelphia. This year’s adjustment was an increase of 0.8 percent. These increases are automatic – legislators do not vote on cost-of-living increases.

Those who attended my November town hall meeting know that Pennsylvania has the second highest paid legislature in the nation, and is one of only four states with a full-time legislature. I believe that the full-time status of Pennsylvania legislators leads many to view their elected position as a career, which in turn alters the way that they view their service in the Legislature and their relationship with their constituents. For this and other reasons, I advocate for a return to a part-time legislature, which would put Pennsylvania back in step with 46 other states.

Last week, I circulated a co-sponsorship memo for legislation, which I have drafted, which would reduce legislative pay to $25,000 and remove many of the other careerist benefits, such as health care and pensions, which legislators currently have available to them. I do not anticipate that this legislation will receive a warm reception among my colleagues, but I do believe that it will begin a conversation which should cause state legislators in Pennsylvania to reflect upon the best public policy.

Scam alert 

Scammers are spoofing an Office of Attorney General phone number in an attempt to get folks to pay them money. Spoofing is a tactic which allows people to mimic the phone numbers of legitimate businesses on the receiving party’s caller ID.

Some of the scammers are posing as agents from the Office of Attorney General and fraudulently claiming the call recipient owes money. The calls appear to originate from the attorney general’s office, but are actually coming from another phone number.

Other individuals reported scammers are using the “Grandparent Scam” from the same phone number. These callers falsely claim a grandchild of the call recipient is in jail and needs bail, or has been in an accident and needs funds. These scams frequently target senior citizens.

If you have received one of these fraudulent calls, please call the Office of Attorney General Bureau of Consumer Protection hotline at 1-800-441-2555, email or file a complaint on the office’s website.

In the meantime, if you know you’re receiving a scam phone call, hang up. Don’t press any buttons and, if you received a voice mail message, don’t call the scammer back.  Don’t trust caller ID and never give out personal information such as account numbers, Social Security numbers, mother’s maiden name, passwords or other identifying information in response to unexpected calls. 

Protecting senior benefits

Legislation will soon be on the governor’s desk that will allow senior citizens who received a Social Security cost-of-living increase to keep their eligibility for the state’s PACE and PACENET prescription drug benefit plans.

A law preventing seniors from being disqualified from the programs solely due to a Social Security cost of living increase was set to expire at the end of this year; however, House Bill 425 would continue the exemption through Dec. 31, 2019.

Current income eligibility levels for PACE are set at less than $14,500 for a single person and less than $17,700 for a couple. PACENET, which covers those individuals with incomes exceeding PACE maximums, is open to individuals earning between $14,500 and $23,500 and couples with incomes between $17,700 and $31,500. The minimum age to participate in the programs is 65, and they are funded from proceeds of the Pennsylvania Lottery.

Deadline for Rebate Program is Dec. 31

Senior citizens are reminded that the deadline to apply for the state’s 2016 Property Tax/Rent Rebate program is Dec. 31. Applications are available from my district office.

Eligible participants can receive a rebate of up to $650 based on their rent or property taxes paid in 2016.

Applications for the 2017 program are expected to be available in early February.

Guarding against fraud this holiday season

While the holiday season is often the most charitable, consumers are encouraged to be vigilant and watch out for scams aimed at taking advantage of their good will.

For your protection, the Pennsylvania Department of State’s Bureau of Charitable Organizations maintains an online database which contains all legally established charities in Pennsylvania. Consumers are encouraged to verify the legitimacy of any charity using this database prior to donating.