Senator Bob Mensch E-Newsletter

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The Senate Appropriations Committee is holding three weeks of public hearings on the proposed 2020-21 state budget. Below is a summary of the first week, including key topics discussed, my questions for administration officials, and video of each hearing.

This Week’s Budget Hearings:

  • Independent Fiscal Office
  • Department of Revenue/ PA Lottery
  • Department of Drug & Alcohol
  • Department of Military and Veterans Affairs
  • Department of Corrections/Board of Pardons & Parole
  • Board of Pardons
  • State System of Higher Education
  • Department of State
  • Attorney General

Tuesday

Independent Fiscal Office

2/18/20 – Budget Hearing Q&A: Independent Fiscal Office

As sponsor of legislation to bring Performance-Based Budgeting to PA, I was happy to hear it’s changing state budgeting behavior. I asked Independent Fiscal Office officials about the impact of PBB and urged spending restraint and caution on economic growth estimates.

The committee and Director Matthew Knittel discussed the following topics:

  • The prominent spending figures in the proposed 2020-21 state budget, beyond General Fund numbers.
  • Confidence in economic growth, and the need to be cautious.
  • Competing estimates on how the proposed combined reporting requirement would expand the tax base.
  • PA’s skyrocketing property taxes impacting the ability of seniors to stay in their homes and contribute to the economy.
  • The net benefit of the Film Production Tax Credit.
  • The effectiveness of workforce development programs to move workers from retail to skilled jobs.
  • The urgent need for welfare reform to bring able-bodied workers into our aging workforce.
  • The impact a $15 minimum wage would have on PA job losses.
  • The effect of games of skill on PA Lottery sales.
  • The misuse of tax credits designed to give PA communities better access to high-speed internet.
  • A constitutional amendment to end the tactic of using supplemental state budgets to cover up annual cost overruns.
  • The ability of Performance-Based Budgeting to change budgeting behavior.
  • The projected impact of changing demographics on the workforce, and how to attract younger workers.
  • The effect of challenges facing PA agriculture on the PA economy and the effectiveness of the two-year-old Dairy Investment Program.
  • PA’s tax rankings for PIT, Sales, Property Taxes and total versus national average.
  • The impact administration proposals on natural gas development and the economy’s reduced reliance on oil prices.
  • Cost estimates for most recent collective bargaining agreement with unionized state workers.
  • The governor’s failure to fund career and technical education and the opportunity to boost wages.
  • The potential use of dynamic modeling to assess effects on the future PA budgets.

Full Hearing

Department of Revenue/ PA Lottery

2/18/20 – Budget Hearing Q&A: Revenue/Lottery

During the hearing with Revenue and Lottery officials, I questioned how the legalization and regulation of skills games would affect future Lottery sales. I also raised concerns about sales tax audits in the lodging industry.

Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee discussed financial challenges facing the Pennsylvania Lottery and the Commonwealth as a whole during a budget hearing with Secretary of Revenue C. Daniel Hassell and Pennsylvania Lottery Executive Director Drew Svitko. Topics of discussion included:

  • The impact of the availability of skill games on Lottery sales.
  • Potential ways to mitigate the financial effect of skill games on the Lottery Fund.
  • The impact of the Governor’s proposed carbon taxes.
  • Precautions to ensure Lottery technology upgrades are completed efficiently.
  • The ability to work with the Department of Human Services to combat welfare fraud.
  • How the potential legalization and regulation of skills games would affect future Lottery sales.
  • Concerns about sales tax audits in the lodging industry.
  • Discrepancies in staffing and costs related to the Pennsylvania Lottery.
  • The use of the Enhanced Revenue Collection Account to deal with delinquencies.
  • How state agencies are working to ensure companies are held accountable if they fail to meet job creation targets when applying for tax credits.
  • The amount of money spent by the Lottery on advertising, as well as other factors that go into determining the advertising budget.
  • IT initiatives to prevent data breaches and protect the personal information of Pennsylvanians.
  • The costs associated with the new I-Lottery system and the services funded by these revenues.
  • New revenues generated by closing loopholes related to the tourism industry.
  • How much revenue the state is expected to collect from medicinal cannabis and future projected revenues from the industry.
  • How sales are monitored and sales taxes are collected from out-of-state online retailers.
  • A ruling on whether the sales tax applies to certain association events.
  • How to help more seniors participate in the Property Tax Rent Rebate program.
  • The sustainability of Lottery revenues in future years.
  • The participation rate in the Property Tax Rent Rebate program.

Full Hearing

Department of Drug & Alcohol

2/18/20 – Budget Hearing Q&A: Drug & Alcohol Programs

I used this hearing to explore the potential impact on gambling addiction programs by the Governor’s proposal to drain the Horse Racing Fund, and the use of methadone in treatment programs.

Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee questioned Department of Drug and Alcohol Secretary Jen Smith about the following topics:

  • Departmental funding and federal funding.
  • The impact of methamphetamines in communities.
  • Funding to address the Hepatitis C epidemic in Johnstown.
  • The proposed “Recovery to Work” program.
  • Gambling addiction programs and potential correlations between gambling and opioid abuse.
  • Abuse of drugs obtained from veterinarians.
  • The effectiveness of faith-based recovery programs.
  • State support for local EMS programs, especially related to overdose cases.
  • The use of medication-assisted treatment programs.
  • Costs incurred by patients with insurance coverage.
  • The lack of accountability regarding a $10 million grant from the Bloomberg Family Foundation.
  • The impact of the Governor’s proposal to drain the Horse Racing Fund on gambling addition programs
  • The use of methadone in treatment programs.
  • The average length of methadone treatment.

Full Hearing

Wednesday

Department of Military and Veterans Affairs

During the budget hearing for the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, senators discussed a wide range of topics impacting the Commonwealth’s veteran population and how the state can better serve them.  Questions focused on:

  • The implementation of Pennsylvania’s new Military Family Educational Program.
  • Efforts to stem the growing tide of veteran suicides, aid homeless veterans and treat those with addiction.
  • Potential barriers in federal funding for the creation of veterans day care programs.
  • Providing vouchers for veterans to use in county homes closer to where they live.
  • The success and effectiveness of veterans courts and how their use can be expanded.
  • Ongoing efforts to provide certification reciprocity for military veterans who are coming out of service.

Full Hearing

Department of Corrections/Board of Pardons & Parole

2/19/20 – Budget Hearing Q&A: Corrections/Probation & Parole

Safety and other issues facing the transition from Graterford to SCI Phoenix, and the status of the old prison, were the topics of my questions to Corrections Secretary John Wetzel.

The committee questioned Corrections Secretary John Wetzel and Board Chairman Theodore Johnson about the following topics:

  • Assurances the proposed Corrections budget did not contain hidden taxpayer costs and that no more prison closures were planned.
  • The success of inmate drug treatment and efforts to limit overtime costs.
  • Safety and other issues facing the transition into SCI Phoenix and the status of the old prison.
  • Reducing the number of parolees committing violent crimes and ensuring the safety of corrections officers.
  • Staff exposures to mailed substances, recidivism rates for community corrections centers, and the work of Quehanna Boot Camp.
  • Efforts to protect female inmates from human trafficking.
  • County drug treatment referrals and potential delays in treatment.
  • An increase in inmate suicides, and legislation that would postpone consideration of parole if an inmate commits violence while incarcerated.
  • Administering the Prison Rape Elimination Act while protecting the due process rights of corrections officers accused by inmates.
  • The need for inmates to find work after release.
  • Requiring the state Victim Advocate to be a licensed attorney to represent victims before the Board of Probation and Parole. 
  • The use of medical parole to cut costs, and dealing with absconder parolees who avoid monitoring and apprehension.

 Full Hearing 

Board of Pardons

A budget hearing with Pennsylvania Board of Pardons Secretary Brandon Flood offered members of the Senate Appropriations Committee an opportunity to discuss the Board’s critical role in the criminal justice system. Some of the topics of discussion included:

  • How modernization, reform measures and improved communications could improve the pardons process.
  • Ways to reduce recidivism and help more pardoned individuals successfully reintegrate into society after incarceration.
  • The differences between clemency, pardons and commutations.
  • The amount of time needed to review applications and complete the pardons process.
  • How many of the individuals whose sentences were commuted went on to commit subsequent crimes.
  • The disadvantages of Board members expressing personal opinions on controversial criminal justice topics.
  • How the Board works cooperatively with the Office of the Victim Advocate.
  • The cost and impact of IT upgrades.
  • An update on the Expedited Review Program for non-violent marijuana convictions.
  • How technology upgrades could change the makeup of applicants.
  • Special considerations for veterans.

Full Hearing

Thursday

State System of Higher Education

2/20/20 – Budget Hearing Q&A: State System of Higher Education

What has been done to implement recommendations made by a commission established to report on the long-term viability of the State System schools? That was among my questions at this week’s PASSHE hearing.

During the budget hearing for the State System of Higher Education, senators raised concerns about tuition costs, declining enrollment and keeping the system viable with Chancellor Daniel Greenstein.  Senators also asked about:

  • The impact of projected downturns in enrollment on instructor complement, and downturns in community college transfers.
  • Steps being taken to implement recommendations made by the Rand Commission, which provided a report on the long-term viability of the state system.
  • The need for Pennsylvania to “right-size” its higher education footprint so that there are not too many campuses straining the system.
  • Why top-performing schools are getting the least amount of state funding.
  • The critical role that community colleges play in workforce development.
  • How the state system is faring in meeting four-year graduation rates, particularly given the higher student loan debt.

Full Hearing

Department of State 

2/20/20 – Budget Hearing Q&A: Department of State

In the wake of sweeping changes in the PA election process, I wanted to hear from Commonwealth Secretary Kathy Boockvar about efforts to prevent human error in the election process, personal privacy and fraud prevention.

The Senate Appropriations Committee discussed the following topics with Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar:

  • Election modernization efforts.
  • Reporting of election night results.
  • Issues with the printing of ballots.
  • Preparations for the upcoming primary election.
  • Efforts to prevent human error in the election process.
  • Personal privacy and fraud prevention.
  • State licensing issues.
  • Public education efforts for the election changes under Act 77.
  • Fraud prevention efforts regarding absentee and mailed ballots.
  • Security issues regarding online voter registration.
  • County election expenses.
  • Campaign finance system upgrades.
  • Efforts to increase voter registration and turnout.

Full Hearing

Attorney General

Topics discussed in the hearing included:

  • The recent opioid settlement and how proceeds would be distributed to Pennsylvania communities.
  • Plans for the budget of the Safe2Say Something program aimed at reducing school and community violence.
  • Efforts to reduce prescription drug and fentanyl overdose deaths.
  • The governor’s proposed 75-percent cut to school safety budget.
  • The Attorney General’s controversial legal opinion on sales of 80-percent receivers, which are not considered firearms under federal law.
  • The lack of a consistent data breach strategy across state agencies.
  • An update on the lawsuit over natural gas drilling payments owed to landowners.
  • Details about the office’s new Conviction Integrity Unit, and efforts to combat illegal gambling operations.
  • The impact of the office receiving less funding under the proposed budget than requested.
  • Treatment for drug offenders, including medically assisted treatment and abstinence based. 

Full Hearing

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