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Week of February 25, 2019
The Senate Appropriations Committee is holding three weeks of public hearings on the proposed 2019-20 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 Recap
This Week’s Budget Hearings:
- Department of Labor & Industry
- Department of General Services
- Department of Transportation
- State-Related Universities
- PA College of Technology
- Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology
- Department of Health
- Department of Human Services
- Department of Corrections and Board of Probation & Parole
- PA Liquor Control Board
- Department of Environmental Protection
- PA Commission on Crime & Delinquency and Juvenile Court Judges’ Commission
Department of Labor & Industry
At the budget hearing with Labor and Industry Secretary Oleksiak, I discussed the number of workers who earn the current minimum wage and how a minimum wage increase would affect workers who already earn a higher wage.
Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee questioned how the state can better connect individuals to high-paying jobs during a hearing with the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry Secretary Jerry Oleksiak. Other topics of discussion included:
- How to encourage more students to pursue career and technical training for available manufacturing jobs.
- Improvements to the benefits modification system for Workers’ Compensation.
- Problems regarding Unemployment Compensation call centers.
- The need to make apprenticeships more widely available for skilled labor positions
- The importance of helping able-bodied Medicaid recipients find long-term employment.
- Eliminating redundancies and improving outcomes for individuals in job training programs.
- The economic impact of the premature closure of nuclear plants in Pennsylvania.
- Coordination of state agencies relating to workforce development
- The need to revisit prevailing wage requirements for taxpayer-funded projects.
- The number of hourly workers who earn the current minimum wage.
- How a minimum wage increase would affect higher-earning employees.
- Programs and outreach to help lower-earning employees access job training and skills.
- How the governor’s PA Farm Bill would improve job training in the agriculture industry.
- Ways to help incarcerated individuals gain the job skills they need to reintegrate into the workforce.
- The differences between the funding requested by the Department and the funding Governor Wolf actually proposed.
- The number of jobs that could be eliminated due to an increase in the minimum wage.
- The performance of vocational rehabilitation programs and the number of people that would be served by the additional funding proposed by the Governor.
Department of General Services
The Senate Appropriations Committee discussed the following issues with Secretary of General Services Curt Topper:
- Efforts to achieve costs savings, promote contracts with small businesses, and increase energy use efficiency.
- Contracts, bidding and the purchasing of voting machines.
- Increased spending for utility costs and efforts to reduce energy consumption.
- Borrowing to fund the Bureau of Public Works.
- The Farm Show leaseback contract.
- Improving access to high-speed internet.
- Information technology improvements.
- The state’s property insurance coverage.
- Efforts to address costs from vacant state office space.
- Streamlining the disbursement of surplus state-owned properties.
- Vender selection and licensing for medical marihuana sales.
- A proposed staffing increase.
Department of Transportation
The importance of proper line painting to road safety, as well as road drainage problems and their impact on road life were among the topics I discussed with PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards during Monday’s budget hearing.
The committee questioned Secretary Leslie Richards about the following topics:
- Uses of the Motor License Fund, including State Police funding.
- New personnel to process REAL ID applications ahead of October 2020 deadline.
- Rehabilitation of Driver’s License Centers.
- An update on the Delaware River dredging project.
- Vehicle registration applications now that stickers have been eliminated.
- Funding for license plate-reading technology.
- The importance of the transportation system to farmers.
- Legislation expanding farm vehicle width.
- The impact of Act 89 transportation funding increases.
- Steps PennDOT can take to ensure contractors do a good job.
- Efforts being taken to fill open PennDOT positions.
- Costly new emissions testing equipment mandated by the Enhanced Vehicle Emissions Program.
- The economic impact interstate truck bans during storms on farmers and nearby communities.
- An update on replacement of structurally deficient bridges.
- Steps being taken after it was revealed non-citizens were registering to vote via the Motor Voter Law.
- PennDOT’s involvement in combating human trafficking.
- The possibility of revising the 30-year-old formula for funding transportation projects.
- The need for more federal transportation funding.
The Appropriations Committee reviewed proposed spending by state related universities with Penn State President Eric Barron, University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Patrick Gallagher, Temple University President Richard M. Englert and Lincoln University President Brenda Allen. Topics included:
- The missions of the state related schools in relation to the schools in the State System of Higher Education.
- The value of a possible Higher Education Funding Commission.
- The problem of declining college-age population and higher ed enrollment.
- Steps being taken by universities to help combat Pennsylvania’s opioid crisis.
- Student mental health and suicide prevention plans
- The work of the PA Commission for Agricultural Education Excellence.
- The economic impact of college campuses on surrounding communities.
- An update on anti-hazing initiatives following passage of the Timothy J. Piazza Anti-Hazing bill.
- The impact of the Governor’s flat funding will have on tuition.
I discussed the impact of justice reinvestment and specialty courts and how these strategies have affected judicial costs during the budget hearing with Supreme Court justices.
Representatives of the judicial branch detailed the impact of Governor Wolf’s budget proposal on the court system. Topics of discussion included:
- The impact of flat funding for the judicial branch and the amount of funds held in reserve.
- Additional funding necessary to implement the state’s Clean Slate law.
- The decision to delay consideration of a proposed rule change in regards to venue shopping.
- Efforts of the judicial branch to reexamine office space and leases.
- The number and effectiveness of problem-solving courts.
- The impact of justice reinvestment and specialty courts and how these strategies have affected judicial costs.
- Steps the judicial branch is taking to improve cybersecurity and protect against the threat of data breaches.
- Possible changes to continuing legal education requirements.
- How the use of criminal history reports is evaluated.
- The caseload and cost of the Judicial Conduct Board.
- Policies related to gifts to members of the judiciary.
- The effect of keeping vacant judgeships open.
Pennsylvania College of Technology
I asked Pennsylvania College of Technology President Davie Jane Gilmour about the school’s affiliation with Penn State and its capital investments.
The Senate Appropriations Committee discussed the following issues with Pennsylvania College of Technology President Davie Jane Gilmour:
- The need for a higher education funding commission.
- Preparing students to meet employers’ needs.
- Programs for veterans.
- Improvements to the school’s welding program.
- The school’s brewing and fermentation program.
- The average level of student debt.
- The inclusion of liberal arts classes in a technical education program.
- Graduation rates and students who leave early for job opportunities.
- The school’s relationship with the Shell cracker plant
- Retention of graduates in Pennsylvania.
- Programs and positions eliminated by the school.
- The state’s financial support of the school.
Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology
Lawmakers discussed the importance of higher education and workforce development during a hearing with the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology. Topics of discussion included:
- Ways the school works to meet the educational needs of low-income students.
- The metrics that should be considered in funding higher education.
- How the school has bucked recent trends of reduced enrollment at other universities.
- The process of adding and removing programs.
- Potential pathways to help a larger number of unemployed individuals transition into the workforce.
- Programs that could be expanded to train students from low-income families for high-paying careers.
- The makeup and demographics of the school and the programs that are most popular and successful for students.
- The value of creating partnerships between higher education and the business community.
Department of Health
Misinformation about childhood vaccination and its role in the resurgence of diseases such as polio and measles was the topic of my discussion with Health Secretary Rachel Levine.
The status of efforts to fight the opioid crisis and help those with addiction highlighted committee questioning during the budget hearing with Health Department Secretary Rachel Levine. Other topics discussed included:
- A recent study which found that recreational marijuana, like opioids, can lead to addiction for certain people.
- The use of drug treatment plans and drug testing when providing prescriptions for opioid use.
- The health risks posed to adolescents who smoke recreational marijuana and the need to get that message out to young people.
- Legislation to speed up the processing of rape evidence kits is not being followed by the department, and the health care provider hotline established by that law must be improved.
- Efforts to address delays in providing birth certificates and other vital records to state residents.
- The overprescribing of opioids for routine procedures, such as the removal of wisdom teeth.
- Misinformation concerning childhood vaccination and its role in the resurgence of diseases such as polio and measles.
- The shortage of vital ambulance staff and services, particularly in rural Pennsylvania.
- How the governor’s emergency declaration on opioid abuse is impacting small towns, where the crisis is particularly severe.
- Recent efforts to update hospital regulations relating to the providing of anesthesia.
- The PA Rural Health Model, which is vital to providing patient access and care, and to saving health care jobs in rural areas of the state.
Department of Human Services
During the hearing with Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller, I questioned how we can help organizations that provide early intervention services for at-risk children and better meet the health care needs of older Pennsylvanians with serious medical issues.
Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee discussed several of cost-saving ideas and ongoing reform efforts with Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller. Topics of discussion included:
- The sustainability of Medicaid and expectations for recipients.
- The effectiveness of the current framework of public assistance programs in helping people transition from welfare to work.
- Ways to eliminate barriers that prevent individuals from climbing out of generational poverty.
- New approaches to improve health care options elderly Pennsylvanians.
- Steps the Department is taking to reduce pharmacy benefit manager costs and increase transparency of prescription costs.
- The Governor’s proposal to create a new tax on ambulatory surgery centers.
- Potential fee changes that could jeopardize services provided to local individuals who have disabilities.
- Waiver requests that would allow able-bodied individuals without dependents to receive SNAP benefits without meeting work and job search requirements.
- The timeline for changes to the Medical Assistance Transportation Program.
- Loopholes to child abuse reporting requirements.
- How DHS is working to address the growth in neonatal abstinence syndrome due to the opioid epidemic.
- The performance and models for Centers of Excellence.
- Ways to help organizations that provide early intervention services for at-risk children.
- How to better meet the health care needs of older Pennsylvanians with serious medical needs.
- Ways the state can better meet the needs of older Pennsylvanians and prevent elderly state residents from falling through the cracks in the system.
- How the state could improve long-term care for older Pennsylvanians.
- Cooperation between DHS and L&I in terms of workforce training and development.
- Updates on a number of different programs designed to protect vulnerable populations, including low-income Pennsylvanians, older state residents and children.
Department of Corrections and Board of Probation & Parole
I asked Corrections Secretary John Wetzel about new security systems and technology being implemented in state prisons, including touch screens.
Corrections Secretary John Wetzel fielded questions from members of the Senate Appropriations Committee on a wide range of topics involving state prisons, inmate populations and how to reduce recidivism rates. Other questions included:
- Concerns that individuals are being placed in local community corrections centers that are not near where they live.
- A proposal to train eligible inmates to become volunteer firefighters.
- How medication-assisted treatment works with inmates who are being released and whether statistics find it to be successful.
- Using telemedicine as an efficient, affordable way to help treat Pennsylvania’s aging prison population.
- The high cost of moving a relatively small number of inmates from Graterford, which closed, to the new SCI Phoenix prison.
- What the Legislature can do to make it easier for those leaving prison to obtain employment.
- Steps being taken to help inmates with PTSD, dementia and hospice needs.
- New security systems and technology being implemented in state prisons.
- How declining prison populations will affect prison closures in coming years.
- The impact of Senate Bill 14, which would reform the way probation and parole violations are handled in PA.
- The threat of inmates being human-trafficked from inside a prison and how that can be prevented.
- Where prison populations stand in terms of capacity, whether PA accepts inmates from other states, and what cost-savings measures are being implemented.
PA Liquor Control Board
Several committee members challenged members of the Liquor Control Board about why state store workers are not being informed about their ability to opt out of paying dues to a government union, based on the U.S. Supreme Court JANUS decision. They said the workers should be able to receive information and make a decision based on that data. Senators also raised questions about:
- Wine sales versus liquor sales and growth projections in the years ahead.
- The potential for a trade deal to sell excess PA dairy products to Cuba in exchange for rum.
- The number of Pennsylvania wines are featured in state stores and how well they sell.
- Profits made by auctioning off liquor licenses and how many licenses have been sold.
- Whether money used to advertise state stores and alcohol sales should be put to better use.
- The number of stores have the lottery machines and if sales are profitable.
Department of Environmental Protection
I questioned DEP Secretary Patrick McConnell about funding for hazardous site cleanup operations and Pennsylvania’s plans for the cleanup of Chesapeake Bay.
The Senate Appropriations Committee discussed the following issues with Secretary Patrick McDonnell during the budget hearing with the Department of Environmental Protection:
- DEP restrictions on gas drilling.
- Varying times for permit processing by DEP regions.
- The EPA’s Chesapeake Bay regulations.
- Grant programs to help farmers.
- Proposed fund transfers in the budget.
- A reduction in the Recycling Fund.
- Removing some counties from vehicle emissions testing requirements.
- Funding for hazardous site cleanup operations.
- Pennsylvania’s plans for the cleanup of Chesapeake Bay.
- The impact of the closure of nuclear facilities on reaching carbon emission goals.
- Funding for the Susquehanna River Basin Commission.
- The sustainability of Pennsylvania’s various environmental funds.
Pennsylvania Commission on Crime & Delinquency and Juvenile Court Judges’ Commission
Committee members discussed school safety and juvenile justice with Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency Acting Director Derin Myers and Juvenile Court Judges’ Commission Executive Director Richard Steele. Topics included:
- An update on implementation of the Legislature’s school safety initiatives.
- Questions about the use of school safety grants to hire armed security guards.
- The reduction in school safety funding in the governor’s proposed budget.
- The need to review PA’s juvenile justice placement process.
- An update on the status of Children’s Advocacy Centers to help child abuse victims.
- Progress on the Juvenile Justice System Enhancement Strategy data review.
Senate budget hearings resume Monday. The hearings are streamed live at SenatorMensch.com and my Facebook page.
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