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Editorials From Around Pennsylvania

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:

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NEW RULES ON ELECTRIC CHOICE

The wheels of state government typically grind slowly, so swift action by the Public Utility Commission — done in weeks, not months or years — comes as a pleasant surprise.

The PUC, responding to unprecedented wintertime price spikes under the state’s Electric Choice program, approved rules changes that will require energy suppliers to more clearly disclose the details of their offers — especially the risks of variable-rate deals.

Also, customers will be allowed to switch energy suppliers in days, not weeks.

Customers, especially those who had opted for a variable rate, have experienced inordinately high bills because of much-colder-than-usual winter weather. Bills that were double or triple what might be expected were not uncommon.

And when customers sought to switch suppliers or change to a more predictable fixed rate, they found it could take up to 40 days.

Under the new rules, suppliers are required to prominently display contractual terms and conditions, particularly as they relate to variable rates.

Also, they must provide historical prices and highlight changes, including 30 days’ notice of a fixed rate becoming variable.

And they will have to clearly state the price per kilowatt hour for the first billing cycle.

To give customers the ability to pull out of a bad deal more quickly, the new rules require that switching suppliers take no more than three days. This avoids having customers being trapped in a 16- to 40-day billing cycle, unable to switch until the next cycle starts.

The new regulations still need the approval of four other state bodies — Independent Regulatory Review Commission, Attorney General’s Office, Senate Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee and House Consumer Affairs Committee. They are expected to approve the rules changes in June.

Once this is done, suppliers have 30 days to implement fuller-disclosure rules, while faster switching should be in place by year’s end.

That seems like a while, but it’s a blink of an eye in state-government time.

The changes come too late to impact the winter and chilly — so far — spring electric bills.

But better late than never.

—Lancaster New Era

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HOUSE SHOULD RESTORE EMERGENCY JOBLESS BENEFITS

For the unemployed, an extra $256 a week could mean the difference between scraping enough money together to pay the mortgage and filing for bankruptcy, between hope and despair.

But don’t tell that to the lawmakers in Washington, D.C., who are against extending federal emergency unemployment benefits from now until May. They don’t want to hear it. They’re too busy worrying about their next free meal.

On Monday, following a three-month struggle to push the legislation through, the Senate voted 59-38 to resume long-term jobless benefits to more than 2 million struggling Americans. The bill now goes before the House, where it is expected to go down in flames if it manages to come up for a vote. A handful of Republicans — a total of seven — is trying to pressure Speaker John Boehner to bring the bill up for consideration.

In December, more than 2 million Americans without jobs lost their benefits when the law allowing for emergency help expired. This bill would restore benefits retroactively and continue paying them until the end of May. Officials say the help would amount to about $256 weekly and mostly go to people who have been out of work for longer than six months.

Sure, this bill carries a hefty cost — $9.6 billion. But Democrats have made several concessions to make it more palatable, including an agreement to offset the cost with other spending cuts in the budget.

The jobless picture is starting to improve and Congress will have to eventually end emergency unemployment benefits. But the situation has not improved for the more than 2 million Americans who would quality for these benefits, far too many of them still feeling the impact of the 2008-09 recession.

They could use help paying their mortgage, electric and grocery bills.

—The (Easton) Express-Times

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SQUEEZE IS ON SOCIAL SERVICE AGENCIES

Erie’s neediest residents already have it tough. Now they will have to absorb an indirect blow because of federal cutbacks in the Community Development Block Grant program. Social service agencies and other nonprofit organizations in Erie face cutbacks when the new fiscal year begins in July.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said that cities and counties across Pennsylvania will be affected by cuts the Obama administration has proposed for the new year. Block grants provide money for fighting blight, revitalizing downtowns, improving roads and supporting economic development projects in the private sector, Casey said in a statement April 2.

“In Erie, funding was used to help fund community policing and infrastructure improvements to accommodate handicapped citizens,” Casey said, as he urged the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee to keep CDBG funding level for the coming year.

The city of Erie will have $335,000 less in CDBG funding this year than it received in 2013, city officials told reporter Gerry Weiss. Heads of Erie social service agencies say the effort to reduce federal spending in Washington will hurt their ability to serve Erie’s poor.

The amount that agencies will lose differs, but those that will take some type of financial hit include the St. Martin Center, the John F. Kennedy Center, the Booker T. Washington Center, the Martin Luther King Center, the Multicultural Community Resource Center, the Trinity Center and St. Paul’s Neighborhood Free Clinic.

“It’s very difficult. It’s a horrible call to make. But we have less money,” said Brenda Sandberg, director of economic and community development for the city of Erie. “It’s certainly no reflection on the work they do. We’re just as frustrated as they are, but there are city resources we need to continue to fund.”

Directors of social service agencies are shocked and alarmed by the reductions, although funding cuts under the CDBG program began in 2011, when the city of Erie received $600,000 less than the previous year.

Still, the cuts come when so many people in Erie continue to struggle. Del Birch, vice president for community building at the United Way of Erie County, wrote in a March 24 blog post that, statewide, nonprofits have been dealing with broad funding cuts for the last five years. “Continuing cuts have affected Erie County nonprofit organizations in a variety of ways, such as eliminating programs (13 percent), reducing hours (21 percent) and adding individuals to their waiting lists (29 percent),” Birch wrote.

Those who answered the survey in Erie County elaborated on how their agencies have been affected by cuts. “We have reduced costs everywhere we can; eliminate(d) positions, cut programs, no merit increases, laid off staff, bid out all services for which we pay (health care, etc.) for lowest costs,” one person wrote.

With an April 16 deadline looming for Erie City Council to allocate CDBG funds, it’s imperative for Erie’s social service agencies to talk about alternative funding, areas for collaboration and possible mergers.

— Erie Times-News

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