Senator Bob Mensch E-Newsletter

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Week of March 4, 2019

The Senate Appropriations Committee held three weeks of public hearings on the proposed 2019-20 state budget. Below is a summary of the third week, including key topics discussed, my questions for testifiers, and video of each hearing.Week 1 Recap Week 2 Recap

This Week’s Budget Hearings:

  • Department of Drug and Alcohol
  • Life Sciences
  • Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
  • Department of Education
  • Department of Aging
  • Department of Military and Veterans Affairs
  • Department of Agriculture
  • Ben Franklin Technology Partners
  • PA Gaming Control Board
  • Department of Community and Economic
  • Budget Secretary

Monday

Department of Drug and Alcohol

Members of the committee questioned Department of Drugs and Alcohol Secretary Jen Smith to explain about the following topics:

  • Steps the department takes to monitor prescription drug abuse and coordinate with other agencies.
  • The demographic breakdown and types of substance abuse.
  • The effectiveness of methadone clinics across PA.
  • The process of identifying possible alternatives to methadone treatment.
  • The length of methadone treatment and the role of Centers for Excellence in treatment.
  • Department funding requests and federal funding.
  • The lack of accountability with the department’s unprecedented acceptance of a $10 million grant from the Bloomberg Family Foundation.
  • Social stigma and the influence of brain chemistry on addiction, and how both affect drug treatment in PA.
  • Steps to weed out unscrupulous recovery home operators prior to implementation of legislation to establish regulations.
  • Repeat use of naloxone on certain overdose victims.
  • Details on the department’s spending plan and projected outcomes
  • The need for an assessment of non-medical treatment necessities across PA.

Full Hearing

Life Sciences

Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee heard testimony from representatives of the Life Science Greenhouse Initiative, which is funded by the annual Master Settlement Agreement

payment for the Tobacco Settlement. Three regional biotechnology research centers play a critical role in linking research and development with investment to create jobs and fuel innovation and technology. Senators asked representatives from those centers about:

  • The high cost of prescription drugs and what can be done to make them more affordable for Pennsylvanians.
  • Concerns that some areas of the state do not have Life Sciences greenhouse, which would help to bring jobs, venture capital and economic development.
  • How many jobs are created by the pharmaceutical industry, particularly in research and development, and the pay scale for those jobs.
  • Whether Pennsylvania’s decision to borrow against the tobacco settlement fund several years ago had an impact on revenues generated by the Life Sciences industry.
  • How Pennsylvanian’s Life Sciences greenhouses determine what companies and technologies to invest in and how successful that process is.
  • The high cost of developing pharmaceuticals, what can be done to control that pricing, and how rigorous our standards are.
  • Why many innovative trials on devices are funded in the United States but then take place first in Europe.
  • The return on investment for Life Sciences spending.

Full Hearing

Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee asked Secretary of Conservation and Natural Resource Cindy Dunn for more information about Governor Wolf’s plan to raise for $4.5 billion in spending over four years for infrastructure improvements through a bond that would be repaid through the imposition of a Marcellus Shale extraction tax. They also posed questions about:

  • The large amount of leased land in Pennsylvania and the revenue it could generate for the Commonwealth.
  • Complicated fund transfers within the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and flat timber sales.
  • Efforts to stem the spread of the invasive spotted lanternfly.
  • The economic impact of state parks and forests, and the trickle down impact they have on communities throughout PA.
  • The status of sand replenishment efforts at Presque Isle Bay and other efforts to improve this important recreational resource.
  • Fund transfers from the Keystone Recreation and Environmental Stewardship Fund.
  • Funding for the Statewide Radio System.

Full Hearing

Tuesday 

Department of Education

3/5/19 – Budget Hearing Q&A: Education, Part 1

With Secretary Pedro Rivera, I discussed ways to improve equity in education funding and questioned how advances in digital technology could affect the funding needs of libraries.

3/5/19 – Budget Hearing Q&A: Education, Part 2

During the extended hearing, I discussed funding disparities between programs for public and non-public schools, resources for homeschool students, and community college programs with Secretary Rivera.

Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee discussed a wide variety of topics that affect students and taxpayers during a hearing with the Department of Education. Topics of discussion with Secretary Pedro Rivera included:

  • Efforts to recruit and retain high-quality educators.
  • The impact of Governor Wolf’s plan to raise the minimum teacher salary.
  • Concerns about the costs associated with cyber charter schools.
  • Funding needs for technical and vocational education.
  • Transportation costs for students.
  • Telepresence education for students who face an extended absence from school.
  • Further steps to strengthen school safety.
  • Steps taken to address the backlog of school construction cost reimbursements.
  • Restrictions on school safety grants.
  • The benefits of allowing school districts to utilize flexible instruction days.
  • The importance of funding Pennsylvania’s libraries.
  • Mandatory training for students in hands-only CPR.
  • How the internet and digital technology affects the need for funding for libraries.
  • Ways to improve the education funding formula.
  • Governor Wolf’s veto of legislation last year that would have provided resources for agriculture education.
  • The impact of the additional funding dedicated to the Erie School District.
  • Ways the Department could intervene before school districts become insolvent.
  • How to improve the teacher evaluation system.
  • Providing education about the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
  • Desired outcomes and performance of adult literacy programs.
  • Concerns about early childhood education and community college funding.
  • An update on career and technical education grants for equipment purchases.
  • Funding disparities between programs for public and non-public schools.
  • The need to reevaluate all aspects of education funding and ensure fair funding between school districts.

Full Hearing

Department of Aging

3/5/19 – Budget Hearing Q&A: Aging

Elder abuse prevention measures was the topic of my conservation with Acting Secretary Robert Torres.

Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee questioned Robert Torres, Acting Secretary of Aging, and Tom Snedden, Director of the PACE program, on several issues important to Pennsylvania’s older residents, including:

  • Guidelines for Senior Community Center grants.
  • A potential decline in Lottery Fund resources.
  • Projected increases in Pennsylvania’s senior citizen population.
  • Elder abuse prevention measures.
  • Waiting lists for PENNCARE programs.
  • Grandparents raising grandchildren because of the opioid crisis.
  • Pharmaceutical cost transparency.
  • Training on opioid prescribing.
  • Statewide funding for Area Agencies on Aging.

Full Hearing 

Wednesday

Department of Military and Veterans Affairs

3/6/19 – Budget Hearing Q&A: Military & Veterans Affairs

I asked representatives of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs about transferring military service skills for certification in private industry.

PA Adjutant General Anthony Carrelli fielded questions from members of the Senate Appropriations Committee about issues relating to Pennsylvania’s military community during a hearing on the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, including:

  • A proposal to enable re-enlisting members of the PA National Guard to earn free college tuition for their families.
  • Suicide rates among veterans in PA and what is being done to provide more mental health resources.
  • Transferring military service skills for certification in private industry.
  • Efforts to move away from traditional institutional care for veteran senior citizens to community-based settings and how that will impact veterans homes.
  • Proposed cuts in mental health funding.
  • Construction and rehabilitation efforts at the Soldiers and Sailors Home in Erie
  • Efforts to make certification requirements easier and more timely for military spouses.
  • What Pennsylvania can do to further help members of the military and their family transition to private industry.

Full Hearing

Department of Agriculture

Senate Appropriations Committee members discussed several topics of interest to Pennsylvania’s farmers during the budget hearing with Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding. The topics included:

  • The emerging field of industrial hemp in Pennsylvania.
  • Poultry and wild bird diseases.
  • The PA Preferred program and the value of its trademark.
  • Centers for Agricultural Excellence.
  • Need for a dog licensing fee increase.
  • Long-term fiscal viability of the Farm Show Complex.
  • Efforts to protect livestock and poultry from disease outbreaks.
  • Personnel available for agricultural preparedness and response efforts.
  • Veterinarians’ role in the opioid crisis.
  • The Governor’s proposed elimination of funding for hardwoods research.
  • The state’s frozen dessert license.
  • The impact of commercial travel bans during winter storms.
  • Deer farms’ role in the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease.
  • Crop damage payments and Sunday hunting to control the deer population.
  • Costs of the Homegrown by Heroes program.
  • Response to issues with cicadas.
  • A multi-state dairy summit.
  • Use of third-party inspectors.
  • Revenues from fireworks sales.
  • Performance of the Farmers Market Nutrition Program.

Full Hearing

Ben Franklin Technology Partners

3/6/19 – Budget Hearing Q&A: Ben Franklin Technology Partners

Funding for the Ben Franklin system and investments in life sciences and electronics was the topic of my discussion with Ben Franklin Technology Partners.

Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee raised several issues during the budget hearing with Stephen Brawley, President of Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern Pennsylvania; Chadwick Paul, President of Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania; Scott Nissenbaum, Chief Investment Officer of Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania; and Rich Lunak, President of Innovation Works. Issues discussed included:

  • Pennsylvania’s attractiveness to entrepreneurs.
  • The selection process for companies.
  • Technology development programs in other states.
  • Resources that could be developed by additional state funding.
  • Companies and jobs created through Ben Franklin.
  • Innovation Works efforts to develop new companies in southwestern Pennsylvania.
  • Potential spin-off companies from the Beaver County cracker plant.
  • Investments in life sciences and electronics.
  • Regulatory barriers that impede business development.
  • The interstate competition of economic development incentives.

Full Hearing

Thursday

PA Gaming Control Board

The committee hearing with PA Gaming Control Board featured Executive Director Kevin O’Toole, Chief Counsel Douglas Sherman and Chairman David Barasch, and covered the following topics related to the expansion of gaming in the commonwealth:

  • Monitoring video game terminals via a central control system.
  • Legislation allowing municipalities to opt out of truck stop VGTs.
  • An update on the status of the Big Beaver mini-casino application.
  • Regulations for video gaming at truck stops.
  • Gaming’s impact on horse racing.
  • The health of PA’s horse racing industry following the expansion of gaming in the commonwealth.
  • Bill requiring that revenue from gaming expansion be used to provide long-promised property tax relief.
  • iGaming’s impact on gambling addiction & local share assessments.
  • Safeguards to keep children from gambling online.
  • The fees paid by gaming institutions to fund regulatory actions.
  • The need for a long-term gaming strategy for Pennsylvania.

Full Hearing

Department of Community and Economic Development

3/7/19 – Budget Hearing Q&A: DCED (Community and Economic Development)

I question DCED Secretary Dennis Davin about state tax credit programs, which were implemented to promote economic development in Pennsylvania.

Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee questioned Secretary Dennis Davin about the state’s film tax credit program and other initiatives during the budget hearing on the Department of Community & Economic Development. Topics discussed included:

  • Offering incentives to Amazon, but not to Urban Outfitters.
  • Reduced state support for public television.
  • The need for regulation reform.
  • Filling existing job vacancies.
  • Best ways to invest economic development funding.
  • The performance of state tax credit programs.
  • Early Intervention and CRIZ programs.
  • The economic impact of the Shell cracker plant.
  • The role of workforce development in the economy.

Full Hearing

Budget Secretary

3/7/19 – Budget Hearing Q&A: Office of the Budget

I asked Budget Secretary Jen Swails about reduced funding for school safety, performance-based budgeting, and employee benefit and pension costs.

Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee closed out three weeks of budget hearings with a session with Budget Secretary Jen Swails. Topics discussed included:

  • Transfers between funds and transparency issues.
  • Reduced funding for school safety.
  • The role of performance-based budgeting.
  • Employee benefits and pension costs.
  • The performance of film tax credits.
  • Pennsylvania’s level of debt and borrowing.
  • The variety of special funds in the budget.
  • The year-end revenue estimate for FY 2018-19.
  • Projections for the Lottery Fund.
  • The state’s fiscal outlook.

Full Hearing

Up Next

The Senate returns to voting session on Monday, March 18 at 1 p.m. You can watch session live at PASenateGOP.com.

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