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 second week, including key topics discussed, my questions for administration officials, and video of each hearing. Week 1

This Week’s Budget Hearings:

  • Department of Labor & Industry
  • Auditor General
  • Department of Aging
  • Liquor Control Board
  • Department of Transportation
  • Treasury
  • Department of Human Services
  • Department of Health
  • Department of Education
  • Department of Community & Economic Development

Monday

 Department of Labor & Industry 

2/24/20 – Budget Hearing Q&A: Labor & Industry

During the budget hearing with Labor and Industry officials, I noted the benefits of the Strategic Early Warning Network in preventing job losses and requested an update on the Employment First program for disabled Pennsylvanians.

Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee questioned Department of Labor & Industry Secretary Jerry Oleksiak about a number of concerns regarding unemployment compensation, vocational rehabilitation and workforce development. Topics of conversation include:

  • Technology upgrades to improve the unemployment compensation system.
  • How the Department can address the waiting list for vocational rehabilitation services.
  • Ways to boost workforce development, including internships and apprenticeships.
  • How the Department and the General Assembly can work together to fill the gap created by the rising number of retiring workers.
  • The importance of modernizing apprenticeship programs.
  • The solvency of the unemployment compensation system.
  • The impact of potential minimum wage increases.
  • How we can support job training programs in skilled trades.
  • Financial benefits of allowing school boards to exempt construction projects from prevailing wage requirements.
  • How we are measuring the performance of the state’s workforce development programs.
  • The decline in the number of approved disability claims and how the Department is working to improve efficiency.
  • Costs and benefits of job training programs.
  • How we track job losses in the agriculture industry.
  • Focusing workforce development programs on the next generation of farmers.
  • Benefits of the Strategic Early Warning Network in preventing job losses.
  • An update on the Employment First program for disabled Pennsylvanians.
  • Why the state has not updated the state’s prevailing wage requirements in nearly 60 years.
  • The importance of helping young people learn skilled trades and technical skills needed to compete for high-demand, family-sustaining jobs.
  • The impact of minimum wage increases on senior citizens due to inflation.
  • The importance of supporting new job opportunities in the natural gas industry and related fields.
  • Increases in personnel costs.
  • Lead and asbestos remediation.
  • Funding for the Industry Partnerships program.

Full Hearing

Auditor General

Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee discussed a number of topics with Auditor General Eugene DePasquale including:

  • The impact of reductions in funding on operations in the Auditor General’s Office.
  • Fraud, waste and abuse in the Department of Human Services.
  • Pharmacy benefit managers and transparency in the pharmaceutical industry.
  • Audits of managed care organizations.
  • The Auditor General’s public advocacy of the legalization of marijuana.
  • Cybersecurity initiatives.
  • Voter registration integrity.
  • The Governor’s proposed fee for state police service.
  • Enforcement of the state Dog Law.
  • Bidding for school transportation services.
  • Performance audits and reviews of workforce development agencies.

Full Hearing

Department of Aging 

2/24/20 – Budget Hearing Q&A: Aging  

During the hearing with the Department of Aging, I raised serious concerns about slow responses, delayed pay and other problems regarding the rollout of the Community HealthChoices program. 

Funding for prescription assistance, Adult Protective Services and other programs to support senior citizens were discussed during a budget hearing with Department of Aging Secretary Robert Torres. Topics covered during the hearing included:

  • Reducing the waiting list for services for older Pennsylvanians.
  • Concerns about the rollout of the new Community HealthChoices program.
  • How supplemental funding cuts in last year’s budget and increased funding in next year’s budget would affect the waiting list for services.
  • Delays in funding for senior centers.
  • The importance of supporting Adult Protective Services and programs to help seniors age in place.
  • Whether funding in the Governor’s budget would be sufficient to meet the needs for Adult Protective Services and other services for older Pennsylvanians.
  • Potential savings in prescription assistance programs and how those savings would be used.
  • The use of prescription rebate programs to save money.
  • The impact of skill games on the Lottery Fund.
  • Reimbursement rates for struggling service providers.
  • The number of Adult Protective Services reported and substantiated.
  • Efforts to combat dementia and Alzheimer’s.
  • How the Department of Aging is working to enroll eligible seniors in PACE or PACENET.
  • Concerns about the declining number of available beds at nursing homes and other care providers and the impact of a minimum wage increase.
  • Improvement projects that could be completed at senior centers under the Governor’s proposed budget.

Full Hearing

Tuesday

Liquor Control Board

Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee questioned members of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board about Liquor Code modernization and enforcement during a budget hearing today. Other topics of discussion included:

  • Spending and borrowing proposed for facilities and equipment.
  • Whether current level of transfers from LCB to the General Fund are sustainable.
  • Changes to packaging and territorial agreements and its impact on alcohol sales.
  • A $475 million no-bid contract that was awarded to an out-of-state company for warehousing and distribution in the southeast.
  • The number of state stores that operate on limited hours and whether LCB would reevaluate the merit of expanding hours.
  • Replacing LCB’s enterprise resource planning system and converting to the same system used by the Commonwealth.
  • The percentage of sales that are conducted online.
  • How the Board is working to upgrade its e-commerce system to meet the demands of consumers.
  • Steps taken to prevent data breaches and hacking.
  • Future plans to upgrade facilities in Lancaster.
  • Whether LCB has the flexibility to adjust personnel and staffing.
  • The number of out-of-state wineries who have applied for licenses.
  • Enforcement of underage drinking offenses.
  • The condition, selection and availability of state-owned liquor stores in the Erie region.
  • How LCB is working to improve transparency.
  • The percentage of sales made with credit and debit cards and how LCB works to reduce fees.
  • How modernization measures could affect profitability and future transfers to the General Fund.

Full Hearing

Department of Transportation

The hearing with the Department of Transportation featured the following discussions with Acting Secretary Yassmin Gramian:

  • Wait times for processing REAL ID applications.
  • Funding moving from regional projects to interstates.
  • Transfers occurring from the Motor License Fund to fund operations of our State Police.
  • Cost overruns and delays with the I-83 Melrose Interchange project, and how to prevent contractors from doing the same on other projects.
  • Regional passenger rail needs
  • Why the department does some projects with PennDOT employees rather than use private-sector contractors.
  • Removing complying PA counties from the emissions testing requirement.
  • Sructurally deficient bridges and the need for state/local coordination on transportation planning.
  • The mild winter will free up funds for projects aimed dealing with landslides.
  • Funding the Maritime Exchange for the Delaware River & Bay.
  • Opposition to implementing toll roads to pay for road maintenance.
  • Concern about the environmental impact of road salt runoff.
  • PA’s overreliance on federal transportation funding and the need for an alternative funding study to find a way to meet capacity needs.

Full Hearing

Treasury

Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee questioned PA Treasurer Joe Torsella about the state’s current financial condition and efforts to ensure that the Commonwealth’s fiscal picture remains strong.  Issues include:

  • A discrepancy in debt services number between the department and the governor and whether Pennsylvania is financially sound.
  • The percentage of debt versus revenue, the entire debt load that Pennsylvania carries and efforts to be transparent about those numbers
  • Growing concerns about high property taxes and the continued growth in state spending.
  • Whether General Fund short-term borrowing and cash flow fluctuations are common practice.
  • The fact that growth in government union salaries is outpacing the state’s ability to pay for them.
  • Efforts to monitor compliance with the state’s Unclaimed Property Program and the outcome of changes to the program. 
  • The department’s request for increased general government support and what will be sacrificed if funding does not go up.

Full Hearing

Wednesday 

Department of Human Services

2/26/20 – Budget Hearing Q&A: Human Services

I told Secretary Teresa Miller that local human services providers inform me that contracted Managed Care Organizations are not responsive to problems, and more oversight is needed.

Committee members questioned Secretary Teresa Miller about Pennsylvania being ranked low in moving residents from welfare to work. Other topics included:

  • How the state will fund counties’ needs-based budget requests.
  • Reducing the waiting list for intellectuals with disabilities.
  • Managed Care Organizations and Community HealthChoices.
  • Regulation changes for serving individuals with intellectual disabilities.
  • Preventing nursing homes closures.
  • Ensuring that $3 million PA funding for Planned Parenthood would not be used for abortions.
  • Reimbursement rates for independent pharmacies.
  • The need to use school to curriculum to help break the cycle of poverty.
  • Getting students into all-day technical schools to avoid need for state assistance later.
  • Including lottery winnings in calculating public assistance.
  • Increasing awareness and providing services for mental health issues within farm families.
  • Rising Medical Assistance Transportation Program costs and how to prevent abusing the aid.
  • Elimination of the PA Workwear program.
  • Assurances that the administration has dropped its plan to raise taxes on local ambulatory service centers, which save tax dollars.
  • Details on nontraditional child care services offered by the commonwealth.
  • Performance Based Budgeting Board review finding that DHS performs worse than other states in many areas.

Full Hearing

 Department of Health

2/26/20 – Budget Hearing Q&A: Health

I asked Health Secretary Rachael Levine about how medical marijuana-related profits are being taxed, and raised concerns about the rise in the vaping industry.

During the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on the budget request for the PA Department of Health, senators raised concerns about the Coronavirus, Lyme Disease and other health threats with Health Secretary Rachael Levine. They also asked about:

  • Reductions in Lyme disease funding, given the rise in cases in Pennsylvania.
  • The effectiveness of the state’s prescription drug monitoring program in fighting opioid abuse.
  • A potential bias in a health study on the impact of fracking.
  • New conditions that are being added for eligibility in the state’s Medical Marijuana Program and how profits are being taxes. 
  • What is being done to regulate the delivery devices used for vaping.
  • The important role that telemedicine can plan in making health care more available and affordable.  

Full Hearing 

Thursday 

Department of Education

2/27/20 – Budget Hearing Q&A: Education (Part 1)

One of my questions for the Education secretary: Why has it taken so long to address asbestos issues in schools that continue to pose a threat to students and how can abatement be completed?

Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee questioned Education Secretary Pedro Rivera about a number of issue related to school funding and education, including:

    • How the governor can justify cutting funding for school safety grants from $60 million to $15 million, given their vital importance in protecting students.
    • The increased capital costs associated with providing full-day kindergarten. 
    • Ongoing efforts to expand a pilot dyslexia program statewide and fund more career technical schools in Pennsylvania.
    • The administration’s unfunded all-day kindergarten mandate and its effect on school property taxes.
    • A new program that would require CPR education in schools.
    • The statewide rollout of Act 64 providing school districts with flexible instruction days.
  • Funding allocations for remediating “toxic schools” that pose health risks to students.
  • Why it has taken so long to address asbestos and lead issues in schools.
  • The role that telemedicine can play in providing students with access to doctors and counselors.
  • A new agricultural education curriculum for students.
  • The pending approval of a community college in Erie and how that college would be funded.
  • Improving literacy and providing earlier screening for dyslexia.
  • The popularity of the Education Improvement Tax Credit Program and the need to fund it.
  • The effectiveness of mental health assessments for students and how often they should be done.

Full Hearing (Part 1)

Full Hearing (Part 2)

Department of Community & Economic Development 

During the budget hearing on the Department of Community & Economic Development, members of the Senate Appropriations Committee discussed a number of issues with Secretary Dennis Davin including:

  • Policies affecting affordable housing.
  • The performance of Ben Franklin Technology Partnerships.
  • The effectiveness of tax credit programs.
  • The benefits of Erie’s Opportunity Zones.
  • The impact of the CRIZ program.
  • Levels of international investment in Pennsylvania.
  • The governor’s threatened veto of legislation providing for an energy and fertilizer manufacturing tax credit.
  • The impact of the Governor’s proposed carbon tax.
  • The implantation of a Hotel Occupancy Tax in PA counties. 

Full Hearing 

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