In this Update:
Senate Committee Hears Powerful Testimonies about Veteran Suicide Prevention
While many people may assume war-related trauma is responsible for most military veteran suicides, the stigma associated with seeking mental health care and civilian life crises often precipitate these tragedies.
That is what the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, chaired by Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-33), learned last Thursday during a public hearing about veteran suicide held at Chambersburg VFW Post 1599.
The United States Department of Veterans Affairs in 2018 estimated approximately 20 veterans die by suicide each day. There were 240 Pennsylvania veteran suicides in 2020 according to the department’s data.
Committee members heard tear-filled testimony from family members of military veterans who took their own lives.
“I cry every day in the shower,” said Bruce Bartz, whose son, Trent Bartz, served as a corporal in the U.S. Army Reserve before he took his own life on Aug. 19, 2015. “A lot of veterans are afraid to talk about mental health issues because of the stigma. Suicide, mental illness, depression and anxiety are the only diseases that we blame the person for having. People die from suicide just like they do from any other disease, but we blame them. One of the best ways to bring awareness to our mental health crisis is hearing testimonials like this.”
Continue reading this article online to learn about a Gold Star mother and father whose son took his own life; a U.S. Army combat veteran who struggled while alone during the COVID-19 lockdown; a veteran suicide attempt survivor; a nonprofit organization developed to help veterans struggling with mental illness; and state and local efforts to address the veteran suicide problem.
Norfolk Southern CEO at Senate Committee Hearing: Ignition of Rail Cars Following East Palestine Trainwreck was a ‘Success’
The Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, chaired by Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-33), heard testimony Monday from Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw, who described as a “success” the intentional ignition of dangerous chemicals in five railroad cars following the company’s trainwreck on Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio, just west of the Pennsylvania border.
“It was a success. It worked,” Shaw said, adding, “It was the right decision to make.”
“That flaming plume of toxic chemicals may have been a ‘success’ for Norfolk Southern and helped to get its trains running again, but it failed to protect the health of local residents,” Mastriano said. “Norfolk Southern’s epic failure is observable in the rashes, headaches, respiratory problems and other health issues that are plaguing local residents.”
While he called the ignition of the rail cars a “success,” Shaw was reluctant to pinpoint who made the decision to ignite the dangerous contents of the railroad cars.
Shaw first tried to place responsibility for the decision on the “unified command” – or group of federal, state and local officials – who led efforts to respond to his company’s trainwreck.
When pressed by Mastriano, Shaw attempted to pin the blame on the local East Palestine fire chief. Shaw didn’t identify him by name, but instead said the leader of the unified command structure – the local fire chief – made the decision to ignite the railroad cars.
Continue reading this article online to learn more, including Mastriano’s response to Shaw’s effort to pin the blame on the local fire chief; Shaw’s response when Mastriano asked if other options were considered; the testimony of a Purdue University professor about the need to test for more chemicals in the local water, soil and air; and the testimony of an experienced train accident investigator.
Mastriano Introduces Legislation to Improve Curriculum Transparency in Schools
Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-33) announced today that he introduced legislation to empower more parents to have an active role in oversight of what their children are taught.
Senate Bill 340 would require schools to post on a publicly accessible website an internet link or title from every textbook used, a course syllabus and the state academic standards for each instructional course offered. To ensure parents are aware of any changes throughout the school year, schools would be required to update this information no later than 30 days after any revision.
“Transparency is key to ensuring that all parents have a seat at the table and can make their voice heard on issues that impact their children,” Mastriano said. “Schools should be focused on teaching our children how to think, not what to think. I’ve heard from many parents who have no idea what is being taught until they see their children’s homework. This legislation ensures parents have the tools they need to be informed.”
Continue reading this article online to learn the names of senators who cosponsored the legislation and the committee that will consider it.
Senate Reviews Proposed State Budget
The Senate Appropriations Committee held the first of three weeks of public hearings about the proposed 2023-24 state budget.
Gov. Josh Shapiro proposed a $45.8 billion budget that would increase spending by $1.3 billion. Based on projections, it would nearly wipe out the state’s $5 billion Rainy Day Fund in five years.
State Treasurer Stacy Garrity urged lawmakers to make greater investments in Pennsylvania’s Rainy Day Fund and reduce the structural deficit to improve the state’s credit rating. She testified that the commonwealth has a choice: spend modestly now or face a possible fiscal cliff as federal funds dry up and the Rainy Day Fund is depleted.
Independent Fiscal Office Director Matthew Knittel confirmed that Pennsylvania joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative would mean hundreds of millions of dollars in new energy taxes. Higher electricity costs could be on the horizon if Shapiro advances a carbon tax.
Find the hearings schedule, livestreams of budget hearings, daily recaps and video from prior hearings at PASenateGOP.com.
Check the Status of Your Tax Refund
As families struggle with rising costs and inflation, many are anticipating their tax refund. Anyone who would like to check the status of a Pennsylvania Income Tax refund can do so by calling 1-888-PATAXES or clicking here. There is also an opportunity to verify your tax refund to expedite processing.
Improving Access to Unemployment Compensation System
The Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry extended indefinitely a program that enhances Pennsylvanians’ access to the Unemployment Compensation (UC) system by offering in-person appointments to claimants.
The program, now called UC Connect, offers in-person services for UC claimants who do not have proper technology, equipment or technical skills; individuals without access to home Internet or broadband; and individuals with limited-English proficiency.
To schedule an appointment, claimants should contact a PA CareerLink® center directly.
Share Your Feedback on PennDOT’s Winter Services
PennDOT is accepting winter services feedback through an online survey. The public can take the survey here through April 6.
The 17-question survey asks how often respondents travel during poor weather, how they rate PennDOT’s winter service and how they rank snow-removal priorities. Respondents are also asked how they receive PennDOT roadway information and whether they use the state’s 511PA traveler information services.
During the winter, https://511pa.com offers its standard traffic and incident information while adding PennDOT plow-truck locations, winter roadway conditions and other services.
Veterans: Protect Your Pension
Veterans and their beneficiaries who are potentially eligible for VA pension benefits must beware of pension poaching. While pension poaching can impact any veteran, poachers primarily target older veterans. Pension poaching comes in several forms, from selling financial products of questionable value to charging a fee to restructure assets to make the veteran or beneficiary meet income eligibility criteria. Read about other pension poaching methods here.
Avoid becoming a victim of pension poaching by never paying:
If you suspect or experience a scam or financial exploitation related to any veteran benefit, including a VA pension, file a report immediately with the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Military and Veterans Affairs section by calling 717-783-1944, emailing PAvets@attorneygeneral.gov or filling out this online form.