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Trump awards highest military honor to Iraq War veteran

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Tuesday awarded the nation’s highest military honor to an Iraq War veteran who took on an insurgent stronghold and allowed members of his platoon to move to safety during heavy fighting in Fallujah.

The president presented the Medal of Honor to former Army Staff Sgt. David G. Bellavia, of New York. He is the first living Iraq War veteran to receive the honor.

“That whole night in Fallujah. The entire thing is impossible to think about unless you’re talking about the men we lost,” Bellavia said after the ceremony. “Those men we think about every single day.”

Bellavia was leading a squad in support of Operation Phantom Fury in Fallujah in November 2004. After helping his platoon escape fire, he entered a house and killed at least four insurgents who were firing rocket-propelled grenades, the White House said.

Bellavia, who left the Army in 2005, has been awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and the New York State Conspicuous Service Cross.

During the ceremony, Trump recounted the events that led to Bellavia’s honor. Trump said his squad was tasked with clearing 12 houses, and on the 10th house, insurgents opened fire, wounding multiple soldiers.

“David took over,” Trump said. “He provided suppressive fire, while his men evacuated, rescuing his entire squad at the risk of his own life. Only when his men were all out did David exit the building. But the fighting was far from over.”

Trump said Bellavia reentered the building, killing four and seriously wounding a fifth.

“Bleeding and badly wounded, David single-handedly defeated the forces who had attacked his unit and would have killed them all had it not been for the bravery of David,” Trump said.

Bellavia ran for Congress in 2012, losing to Rep. Chris Collins in the Republican primary, and was talked about as a potential successor to Collins when Collins temporarily suspended his reelection campaign last summer after being indicted on insider trading charges. Bellavia’s name is in play again as Collins, whose trial is pending, considers whether to run in 2020.

This is the ninth Medal of Honor that Trump has presented. The honor goes to members of the Armed Forces who distinguish themselves by gallantry above and beyond the call of duty.

In the swim

At right, lifeguards Haley Meerdo, left, and Abby Hollandsworth teach students to float during swimming lessons at Canonsburg Town Park Pool Tuesday. The next session will be held July 15-18. Above, children beat the heat and play in the pool.

Celeste Van Kirk/ Observer-Reporter

Associated Press 

Associated Press

This photo provided by America’s Test Kitchen shows Falafel Burgers with Tahini-Yogurt Sauce. This recipe appears in the cookbook “The Ultimate Burger.”

Barbara Miller/Observer-Reporter 

Barbara Miller/Observer-Reporter

Isaac Puskarich, aided by Nicole Vankirk and Jacob Phillips, stabilized a sign featuring a map of a one-mile route around Washington. They were part of a Dreamers Co. mission working along South Main Street in Washington.

House OKs budget bill after stiff criticism by Democrats

HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives passed the main bill in a just-unveiled $34 billion compromise budget plan on Tuesday, despite hard criticism by rank-and-file Democrats that included a floor fight over whether they could criticize the package for lacking a minimum wage increase.

Democrats also bitterly protested the bill’s defunding of a Depression-era cash assistance program for the poor, a Republican demand that Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf also opposes in a budget package that he otherwise supports.

Still, Democratic leaders voted for the bill, even as they said they would continue to fight for an increase in the minimum wage and to keep the cash assistance program, called “general assistance.”

“At a time when the stock market has never been higher, corporate profits are soaring and yet we’re cutting general assistance,” said Rep. Matt Bradford, D-Montgomery. “How do we make that point? How do we explain that to people?”

After four hours of debate, the bill passed, 140-62, with a handful of Republicans joining most Democrats in opposing it. Senate approval of the bill is still required as the fiscal year ticks down and the new 2019-20 fiscal year starts Monday.

The Republican-controlled Legislature was in the midst of a flurry of votes on bills this week as they rush to approve hundreds of pages of budget-related legislation and depart Harrisburg for the summer.

The budget package capitalizes on strong tax collections to boost aid to public schools and universities and stuff cash into reserve.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, said the package does not rely on any increases in fees or taxes and represents the “largest investment in education” in decades.

Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Fulton, told colleagues during floor debate the bill meets the state’s needs “in an exceptional way.”

“We are working on behalf of those hard-working families that continue to send checks to this commonwealth,” Topper said during floor debate. “When we talk about revenue, we understand we’re not holding a hoagie sale on the Capitol steps.”

In the first hour of the debate, Democrats repeatedly criticized Republican resistance to increase in the minimum wage, something Wolf has advocated for all five years he has been in office.

House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, repeatedly warned Democrats about bringing it up, at one point saying, “I’m going to strike any other reference to minimum wage” from the official transcript of the floor proceedings.

The $34 billion compromise package is similar to the $34.1 billion plan Wolf floated in February.

All told, the package authorizes almost $2 billion in additional spending through the state’s main operations account, or 6% more than the spending lawmakers authorized last year, counting cost overruns in the current fiscal year.

Much of the extra spending covers new discretionary aid for public schools, plus extra amounts to meet rising costs for prisons, debt, pension obligations and health care for the poor.

Still, budget makers are using various cash maneuvers to veil the true cost of government operations, moving hundreds of millions of dollars in costs to outside accounts. Budget makers also have a recent history of low-balling spending estimates for health care services on the front end of the fiscal year, costs they must make up at the end of the fiscal year.

Eliminating general assistance saves an estimated $50 million.

The program temporarily provides $200 a month to people deemed unable to work because they are disabled or in addiction treatment. Wolf’s office has not said what the governor might do, if anything, to try to save it.

Beth-Center seeks forensic audit

FREDERICKTOWN – The Bethlehem-Center School Board Monday authorized a forensic audit of district spending following the discovery of a nearly $1.5 million deficit at the end of the 2018 term.

The board voted 6-3 in favor of the special audit after the accounts were reconciled earlier this year, showing a more than $430,000 deficit at the end of the 2017-18 term.

“We have to have an initiation point,” said Director Bridgett Trump, who made the motion after three earlier attempts to order the audit failed.

The deficit increased because a fund balance of nearly $1.1 million that term no longer exists, district officials have said.

The cost of the forensic audit was capped at $5,000.

Solicitor Jim Davis said that sum will allow the auditors to “go as far as they can go,” and if it costs more the board would need to approve the change.

Directors Donald Crile, Karen Drill and Samuel Marcolini voted against performing the forensic audit.

Meanwhile, the board rejected the 2019-20 budget of $19.4 million that would raise real estate taxes to help deal with the deficit.

Trump said she voted against the spending plan because she hadn’t had time to review it after the final version was presented to the board Monday.

She said it likely will pass at a special meeting at 7:30 p.m. Friday called to approve the budget before the June 30 deadline.

Superintendent Chris Sefcheck said a number of things have been done to cut spending, including plans to not replace a math teacher and eliminate the director of maintenance position.

Spending is tight to the point that administrators considered not sending the marching band to away games and moving night games to daylight to save on electricity bills at the football field.

Sefcheck said the band boosters agreed to cover the cost of transportation to away football games.

He said a rumor that traveled fast through the district that sports programs were being eliminated was untrue.

“We’re not eliminating programs this year,” he said.