Eichelberger keeping up on 2014 changes

HOLLIDAYSBURG – It will be a year of peculiar change for state Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., whose 30th District will include parts of Franklin and Cumberland counties on Dec. 1.

But while he adjusts to the new shape of his district, his focus in 2014 is prioritizing myriad issues, one of which is revising the partial state control of distressed cities like Altoona.

Eichelberger, the co-chairman of a Senate task force for the state’s distressed city program, said Friday amendments have been drafted to put a stop to cities lingering in distressed city status, soaking up government funding that is attached to the label.

“Cities linger in Act 47 for 20 years, and that’s not the intent. We need to change that,” he said.

Because of its distressed city status, Altoona was able to levy a commuter tax, but only as long as it is in the program. That type of temporary revenue serves as incentive for cities to stay in the program, said fire union President Bryson Peterson. The Altoona Fire Department has suffered a loss of staff, a measure taken by the City Council under its Act 47 plan.

The union is currently in negotiations with the city for a contract. Peterson said he is sure an agreement will be reached and arbitration will be avoided because the union is willing to cooperate.

In addition, an arbitration decision in favor of a union against a city in Act 47 would likely be challenged and fail in court because of legislation passed this year.

“Anything an arbitrator would award has to agree with recovery plan,” Peterson said. “It’s a take it or take it situation for unions.”

Union arbitration hearings are closed. But that’s another area of focus for Eichelberger in 2014.

Eichelberger said he is writing legislation to make binding arbitration hearings with public unions – police and firefighters – open to the press and public.

“Negotiations are private; that’s fine. But when it goes to a hearing, and you bring in arbitrators that taxpayers are paying for, that should be public,” he said.

His proposal also would amend law to make arbitration hearings with unions fairer, he said. In some arbitration hearings, current law provides the right to unions to choose the neutral arbitrator for the hearing, Eichelberger said. He seeks to implement a coin toss to give management an opportunity to choose the neutral arbitrator.

Looking back on the past year, Eichelberger was the primary sponsor of two pieces of legislation signed into law.

One bill modernizes the level at which local governments and authorities must competitively bid and advertise for economic development projects.

The other bill makes it now legal for drivers to show proof of insurance in electronic form, such as a smartphone. And it provides for insurance companies to offer drivers insurance deductibles that vanish to zero instead of the past low of $100.

“It brings Pennsylvania up to speed with a majority of other states so we have a more competitive insurance market,” he said.

And drivers in the 30th Senatorial District can expect to be traveling on better roads and bridges statewide.

Transportation funding has gone from being a “disaster” last year to a distinct success in 2013, Eichelberger said during his media conference.

In the last four years, funding for transportation has been declining drastically. But with the transportation bill passed in November, the state, and the 30th District is in good position Eichelberger said.

“We are going to be in good shape. It was a difficult vote [for me],” he said. But the tax at the gas pump that funds the transportation bill is one of the fairest systems for funding transportation among the states, he said.

“We will have the ability to get a lot of good work done – needed work,” he said.