Economy & Business

90.5 WESA explores the regional economy, as well as covering the issues that ordinary Pittsburghers face in their working lives.

Electric Deregulation, Fewer Landlines Cause Drop In Tax Revenue

Feb 17, 2012

A little known state tax is seeing a shortfall for the second year in a row. The drop off is due in part to electric deregulation that went into full effect in Pennsylvania a little more than a decade ago.

Deregulation introduced a number of companies to the state's tax rolls, but with their historically narrow profit margins, the amount of taxes they had to pay was low last year and will be low again this year.

Liquor Control Board Looking For Large Reforms

Feb 17, 2012

The Liquor Control Board is asking state lawmakers for help on a slew of reforms.

Among them, bills to allow liquor stores to sell lottery tickets, allow more to pen on Sundays, and change pricing rules to make them more competitive with neighboring states and online retailers.

Senator John Pippy (R-Allegheny) says efforts to modernize the LCB will not interfere with efforts to sell off the state's liquor stores.

Small business leaders from the Pittsburgh region traveled to the nation's capital this week to meet with President Obama and members of his administration. Among the Pittsburgh contingent was the director of the Center for Women's Entrepreneurship at Chatham University. Rebecca Harris said one of the main takeaways from the day was that there are actually jobs out there, even as the unemployed continue to struggle.

Sixty Jobs To Be Cut At State Homes For Disabled Veterans

Feb 16, 2012

The head of the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans' Affairs says budget cuts will mean about 60 layoffs, but a decision at the national level could lead to more.

Major General Wesley Craig says his agency can deal with the roughly $6 million funding cut proposed by Governor Tom Corbett. But, he says the U.S. Air Force is looking to downsize a National Guard air refueling wing in Pittsburgh by 25 percent and close another air wing entirely.

Top state administrators say it's a bit too early to tell whether the commonwealth's cut of a nationwide mortgage services settlement could breathe life into a program meant to help Pennsylvanians avoid foreclosure.

This is not the first attempt to resurrect the Homeowners Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program (HEMAP). The program closed last July after its state funding was nearly eliminated.

The year-over-year increase for January new home sales in southwestern Pennsylvania was 4.6 percent compared to a year ago. This follows three consecutive months of increases, including December's 9 percent increase. That's according to RealSTATs, a firm that tracks real estate information for Allegheny, Butler, Washington, Westmoreland, and Beaver Counties.

Perhaps the best news is that the upward trend is expected to continue.

An advocacy group gathered in Market Square on Tuesday to drum up support for an extension of federal unemployment benefits, just weeks before the program is set to expire.

Pennsylvania Wants to Work seized the Valentine's Day opportunity to tell Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) to "have a heart," and agree to extend unemployment compensation insurance for laid-off workers. The handful of activists passed out heart-shaped petitions asking GOP legislators to extend the jobless benefits.

Workers compensation premiums paid by companies across the state will be down an average of 5.66 percent from last year, the first time the rates have decreased in two years.

Pennsylvania's Executive Deputy Insurance Commissioner Randy Rohrbaugh said this is good news for state companies.

"They will have hopefully the $160 million to really put back into their business for business expansion and hiring employees, so this is a very positive thing for our employers," Rohrbaugh said.

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu today unveiled plans for energy-efficiency improvements to the 97 year-old City Hall building.

Overall, the renovation process will save the city an estimated $475,000 per year, and will also generate nearly 40 constructions jobs.

Ravenstahl said one main renovation will be to the steam line that provides heat and air conditioning to City Hall.

"We estimate that this will reduce our carbon footprint by 800 metric tons each year," Ravenstahl said.

The Homeowners' Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program (HEMAP) helps Pennsylvanians catch up on mortgage payments when they get behind because of circumstances beyond their control, such as an illness. The program was put on hold in July 2011 because of a lack of funding and is not included in Governor Tom Corbett's $27.1 billion budget. The Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania said leaving it out is a mistake because of the benefit to counties.

CEO Survey Reports Measured Optimism

Feb 7, 2012

A new survey by First Niagara Bank and Siena College finds mixed feelings among chief executives of Pennsylvania companies as they look forward to 2012.

Overall, CEOs are optimistic about the economy, a finding that squares with steady job growth in recent months, both in Pennsylvania and nationwide. 42 percent of the 251 survey respondents in Pittsburgh and Erie expect to see the economy improve in the year ahead, while nearly a third told researchers they plan to hire new employees.

Occupy Pittsburgh had until noon Monday to clear out tents and other structures from the BNY Mellon Green downtown, which they've dubbed "The People's Park."

Labor Groups Ask Lawmakers To Close Tax Loopholes

Feb 6, 2012

A coalition of public labor unions is suggesting a series of reforms to help the state save more than $2 billion and avoid more cuts to education and unspecified "vital services."

It's a list several pages thick itemizing ideas for saving millions at a time including a call to close a corporate tax loophole, a move which recently received bipartisan support. That loophole currently allows corporations to avoid paying taxes on certain proffits they transfer to holdings in Delaware.

Coalition Offers Free Income Tax Help

Feb 5, 2012

A coalition of local organizations is offering free income tax return preparation to low-income residents of Allegheny County.

Individuals who earn less than $20,000 per year or families who make less than $40,000 per year are eligible to set up a free appointment with the Money In Your Pocket Coalition.

Appointments can be made by calling 211, or by visiting the group's website. The coalition lists fifteen offices across the Pittsburgh area.

Housing Market Up in Pittsburgh Region

Feb 3, 2012

Southwestern Pennsylvania's housing market was strong in January.

In the region overall, residential home sales increased by nearly 25 percent, new listings were up about 8 percent, and average sale prices increased 5 percent from January 2011, according to West Penn Multi-List, Inc.

Allegheny County showed a nearly 11 percent increase in new listings, 19 percent rise in home sales, and almost an 8 percent increase in the average sale price.

State May Require Asset Test to Qualify For Food Assistance

Feb 2, 2012

Starting in May, Pennsylvania will likely join a minority of states that check to see if people have too much in savings to qualify for federal food stamps.

Some 43 jurisdictions, including states, territories, and Washington, D.C., have eliminated the so-called "asset test."

Ellen Vollinger of the Food and Research Action Center, an anti-hunger non-profit, said the national trend has moved away from using this type of tool in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. She said such testing makes it trickier to apply for and approve the benefits.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Applauds Pittsburgh Progress

Feb 1, 2012

One week after President Barack Obama's State of the Union address, Commerce Secretary John Bryson joined Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and others at Carnegie Mellon University to discuss their commitment to energy efficiency, conservation, and innovation, as well as creating and retaining jobs.

The main focus of the discussion was on supporting American manufacturers.

Pittsburgh City Councilman Ricky Burgess said city residents can expect a higher level of capital investment this year, thanks to Council's unanimous approval Tuesday of an $80 million bond deal.

"You'll see more streets paved," said Burgess. "You'll see more public buildings repaired. You'll see more houses torn down, more lots cleaned. You'll start to see us invest in the city's infrastructure, which is decaying around us."

Those who struggle to make ends meet following tax season might not be taking full advantage of what's offered in tax credits and deductions.

The United Way of Allegheny County is promoting a free tax preparation program to help about a third of eligible workers who don't apply for the Earned Income Tax Credit. Allegheny County has partnered with the UWAC and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said some people are unaware of how much money they can get back.

Salvation Army & Groupon Partner To Provide Heating Assistance

Jan 30, 2012

G-Team, the philanthropic arm of the "deal-of-the-day" website Groupon, is teaming with the Salvation Army to help needy Pittsburgh residents. Starting Tuesday, people will be able to make donations on the site to help families with their heating assistance.

To receive money, The Salvation Army needs a minimum of 40 pledges, at least $10 apiece, in three days. If The Salvation Army does not reach a $400 goal it receives nothing and donor credit cards are not charged.

Several Republicans in the Pennsylvania House have thrown their support behind a bill that would lower corporate taxes while at the same time closing the so-called Delaware loophole. The move seriously bolsters the efforts of Democrats who have been fighting to get the measure passed.

"We need to lower the corporate net income tax rate," said House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny County). "We have the second highest [rate] in the nation. We also need to continue the phase-out of the capital stock tax. It's a tax on value. It's got to go."

Job Numbers In Pittsburgh Are Getting Stronger

Jan 25, 2012

For the third month in a row, the Pittsburgh region has had a record number of jobs. According to Pittsburgh TODAY, this rise in non-farm jobs has put Pittsburgh over pre-recession employment numbers.

Doug Heuck is the Program Director for Pittsburgh TODAY, a non-profit that provides timely statistical pictures of Pittsburgh life. He said compared to other cities, the Pittsburgh region had strengths that kept the worst of the recession away.

After two months of debating, approving, disapproving, and more debating, it seems like the mayor's office, City Council, and the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority have all agreed on a plan for Pittsburgh to borrow a hefty $80 million.

It's the largest bond floated in city history, and the first new debt issued since Mayor Luke Ravenstahl took office. Pittsburgh City Councilman Bruce Kraus said it's necessary to pay for much-needed capital improvement projects.

Home Sales Leveling Out in Region

Jan 23, 2012

After years of declining home sales, it appears as though the housing market in Southwestern Pennsylvania is stabilizing.

In a report released Monday, the analysis group RealSTATs said the regional residential market declined from 2010 to 2011, but only by eight homes.

"In reality, the market would be more flat than declining," said RealSTATs Vice President Daniel Murrer. "What we envision in 2012 is that the number of home sales should pick up, based on what we saw in the last few months of 2011."

Pittsburgh Credit Rating Upgraded

Jan 20, 2012

Following a trip to New York City aimed at encouraging international bond rating agencies to upgrade Pittsburgh's credit rating, that very thing happened. Moody's upgraded the city from an A1 negative to A1 stable rating and Standard and Poor's upgraded the city from BBB negative to BBB stable.

"For the city and the taxpayers, this means that either their borrowing costs will remain the same or be improved. Either way it's a net plus for taxpayers," said Pete Schlict, financial advisor with Janney Montgomery Scott.

Independent Fiscal Office Offers First Report

Jan 20, 2012

Pennsylvania's Independent Fiscal Office is linking the state's poor economic showing at the end of 2011 to state and local government job layoffs. The opinion is part of the group's first report.

Pennsylvania Housing Alliance Rejects State Funding Cuts

Jan 18, 2012

Following the state's budget cut of $160 million dollars this month, the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania said the Corbett Administration is being foolish. Liz Hersh of the Housing Alliance said the statewide freeze hit housing programs hard.

$19.5 million was from the state's homelessness assistance program. $2.5 million dollars is now gone from legal aid to help people stay in their homes.

Hersh said the latest cuts confuse expenses and investments.

PNC Q4 Earnings Dip

Jan 18, 2012

Fourth-quarter earnings for Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services Group fell more than 40 percent, according to the bank's quarterly report. Net profits dropped to $451 million, or 85 cents a share, from $798 million ($1.50/share) one year ago.

"PNC had a solid year of accomplishments in a challenging regulatory and economic environment," said PNC Chairman and CEO James E. Rohr.

Overall profits for 2011 came in under $3 billion, a decline from last year's $3.01 billion.

Regulatory matters

A survey by the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) reports small business optimism rose nationwide in December for the fourth consecutive month. While the NFIB's Optimism Index gained 5.7 points since September, it is still 6 points below the pre-recession average.

Given ongoing struggles with Pittsburgh's pension funding, the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy decided to examine how the other 129 municipalities in the county are faring with their plans. Using the most recent pension plan data available, which was from 2009, the institute found that overall, smaller municipalities were doing quite well, with only three of the plans funded below 50 percent.