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Week of February 25, 2018
Senate Hearings on Proposed State Budget
As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I am taking part in three weeks of public hearings on Governor Wolf’s proposed 2018-2019 state budget. Summaries and video of each of the second week’s hearings are listed below. You can review last week’s hearings here. I will follow up with the remaining hearings next week. You can view hearings live here.
In this Edition:
- Labor & Industry
- General Services
- State-Related Universities
- PA College of Technology
- Inspector General
- Military & Veterans Affairs
- Conservation & Natural Resources
- Corrections and Probation & Parole
- Liquor Control Board
- Environmental Protection
Monday February 26, 2018
Labor and Industry
Senator Mensch discussed the Strategic Early Warning Network, a service that helps avert layoffs and save taxpayers millions of dollars in unemployment benefits. He also outlined his Employment First legislation designed to boost employment for Pennsylvanians with disabilities.
The Appropriations Committee questioned Labor and Industry Secretary Gerard Oleksiak about Pennsylvania posting a higher unemployment rate than the national average in recent years. Other topics included:
- The number of Unemployment Compensation employees called back from layoffs since passage of Act 60, which allocated $115.2 million for Unemployment Compensation operations.
- Information on the number and profile of minimum wage earners in Pennsylvania.
- The estimated job loss that would result from the Administration’s proposal to raise the mandated minimum wage to $12 per hour.
- The effectiveness of current workforce development and apprenticeship programs.
- The reduction in funding for vocational rehabilitation services in recent years.
- State regulations limiting apprenticeship opportunities for non-union shops.
- The proposed elimination of the $5 million loan Uninsured Employers Guaranty Fund.
- The Administration’s opposition to work requirements for able-bodied Medicaid recipients.
- Efforts to move welfare recipients into work.
- The need to reform prevailing wage laws that drive up the cost of local government projects by 30 percent.
- The problem of volunteer firefighters not being covered by workers compensation in some circumstances.
- Support for programs that help struggling businesses avert layoffs.
- The Administration’s proposal to end funding for the New Choices/New Options program for women.
- The growing problem of PA employers unable to find workers who can pass a drug test.
- The high number of skilled positions that go unfilled in Pennsylvania.
- Details of the department’s plan to increase personnel costs while decreasing operating costs, and the total 3.2 percent funding increase.
Senator Mensch sought information on how many DGS contracts are awarded to Pennsylvania companies. He also explored the cost of the delays at SCI Phoenix in Collegeville, the replacement for Graterford Prison.
Department of General Services Secretary Curt Topper shared his perspective on a number of cost-saving measures during a hearing with members of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Topics of discussion included:
- Repealing outdated regulations that increase public facility construction costs.
- Updating Pennsylvania’s procurement laws.
- The Department’s role in scoring applicants for medical cannabis licenses.
- How additional funding for the Capitol Police would be used to improve public safety.
- Efforts to improve energy efficiency and reduce utility costs.
- An update on the Farm Show lease-back agreement.
- The consolidation of mail operations in order to offset or minimize increases in postage costs.
- The timeframe for implementation of the COSTARS program.
- Potential re-use of vacant state-owned office space.
- Delays in renovating the East Wing rotunda.
- The transition from COGENT to IDEMIA fingerprinting service.
- An update on efforts to upgrade the statewide radio system.
- Delays and cost overruns for completion of SCI Phoenix.
- Changes to the state’s vehicle fleet, including the use of electric vehicles.
- Criteria for establishing long-term capital budget priorities.
- The effect of flat-funding the Rental, Relocation and Municipal Charges appropriation.
PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards answered questions on how efforts to maintain the state’s transportation system, including
- A status report on Pennsylvania’s Transportation Funding Plan and how many projects are being completed.
- The number of structurally deficient bridges in Pennsylvania and efforts to rehabilitate them.
- Debt associated with the PA Turnpike and a decrease in the number of drivers using the toll road.
- The implementation of Real ID, including the cost to drivers and public education efforts.
- Auto emission requirements that are costly, arbitrary and may no longer be necessary.
- The use of round-abouts at intersections to improve safety.
- Freeze/thaw cycles in Pennsylvania and how they affect road conditions.
- The Green Light Go Program, which helps to fund traffic signal improvements.
- The vital role that ports plan in Pennsylvania’s transportation system.
- Problems with congestion and new initiatives to ease the problem through real time data.
Tuesday February 27, 2018
Senator Mensch asked what steps are being taken to prepare graduates for viable careers, and noted the need for state-related universities to coordinate education with community colleges and the State System of Higher Education.
The committee took testimony from the leaders of Penn State University, University of Pittsburgh, Temple University and Lincoln University. Topics discussed included:
- Declining enrollment at the 14 state-owned State System of Higher Education schools and the impact on state-related universities.
- The need for universities to contain costs to ease the tuition burden on students and families.
- Efforts to ensure campus safety.
- Steps being taken to prepare graduates for viable careers.
- The need to coordinate education with community colleges and the State System of Higher Education.
- Connecting students with careers that are in demand.
- Creating entrepreneurs and making venture capital investments.
- The importance of agricultural education and research.
- The impact of pension costs on tuition hikes.
- The need to do more to attract in-state students.
- The average student debt for each school, and how much a six-year enrollment adds to education costs.
- The discipline policy for students who skip class to take part in political activism.
- How cost-drivers in the state budget have made it more difficult to increase funding for higher education.
Senator Mensch asked state Supreme Court Justice Max Baer which branch of government has the responsibility of establishing the legislative districts according to the Pennsylvania Constitution.
Supreme Court Justice Max Baer and Justice Sally Mundy answered questions about issues relating to Pennsylvania’s court system, efforts to fight crime, and the confusion and costs associated with the court’s decision to redraw congressional redistricting maps prior to the approaching primary election. Questions focused on:
- The added costs to counties as a result of the splits in municipalities created by the court’s current redistricting map.
- How much the court paid their out-of-state expert to draw maps that don’t seem to make districts any fairer and how he was chosen.
- Whether additional dollars are going to be provided to educate voters about changing districts.
- The opioid crisis facing Pennsylvania and the need to effectively treat those who are addicted.
- The activity of problem-solving courts across Pennsylvania.
- Possible violations of the Brady Rule requiring prosecutors to turn over exculpatory evidence to the defense.
- Concerns about sending violent juveniles back into the community too quickly.
- State office buildings that are not being used to their full potential.
- Whether there is a policy on out-of-state travel and if it is kept to a minimum.
- The use of mental health courts and other specialty courts to handle cases more effectively and how they are created in each county.
- A status report on a statewide study to determine if counties had the right complement of judges.
- Protecting the victims of human trafficking.
- Funding for the statewide judicial computer project.
Pennsylvania College of Technology
The committee focused on efforts to prepare students for future employment opportunities during the budget hearing with officials from the Pennsylvania College of Technology. Topics discussed during the hearing included:
- Compatibility of students with the college’s programs.
- Skilled labor development initiatives.
- Efforts to attract more students.
- The college’s request for an increased state appropriation.
- Plans to capitalize on the development of the shale cracker plant.
- Capital improvement plans.
- Tuition, associated costs and student debt.
Inspector General Bruce Beemer outlined the ways his office is working to reduce waste, fraud and abuse in state government. Topics of discussion included:
- Cases handled by the Bureau of Special Investigations.
- A potential investigation of funds allocated to the statewide radio system.
- An overview of the process of investigating welfare fraud.
- Why the report regarding the Lt. Governor’s misconduct was not released to the public.
- Fraudulent activity resulting from the opioid epidemic.
- Restitution rates for fraud.
- Federal involvement in investigating welfare abuses.
- Punishments for vendors who accept fraudulent benefits.
- Recouping investigative costs in certain cases.
Wednesday February 28, 2018
Military and Veterans Affairs
Senator Mensch sought information on the total complement of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard and Army National Guard, and discussed efforts to recruit and retain Guard members, and to help them find jobs after they leave the service.
Representatives of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs provided an update on the programs and services designed to help men and women who have served in the military. Topics of discussion included:
- Cost of care in state veterans’ homes in comparison to the cost of care for patients in nursing homes.
- Strategies to provide more home-based care to veterans.
- Outreach efforts to improve awareness of programs for veterans.
- The benefits of the increased use of telemedicine services.
- The decreased number of available beds in state veterans’ homes.
- Cost savings from privatization of some services.
- The importance of funding the Civil Air Patrol.
- Operations undertaken by the National Guard.
- Job placement for returning service members.
- Funding to help members of the military who are affected by post-traumatic stress disorder.
- Progress in addressing veteran suicide rates.
- The use of money dedicated to the state Armory Fund.
- New ways to promote donations to the Veterans’ Trust Fund.
- The impact of federal government shutdowns and continuing resolutions.
- Long-term benefits of the two-year federal budget deal and increased military funding.
Senator Mensch sought details about efforts to combat the Spotted Lanternfly, an invasive species that has been discovered in our region.
Appropriations Committee members questioned Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding about several topics related to farming in Pennsylvania. Questions focused on:
- The formation of the Commission of Agricultural Education Excellence.
- Use of the proposed career technical education funding.
- Efforts to eradicate the Spotted Lanternfly infestation.
- The lease-leaseback of the Farm Show Complex.
- A proposed dog license fee increase.
- The impact of Chronic Wasting Disease on deer farms.
- Funding for the Pennsylvania Agricultural Surplus System.
- Funding for the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine.
- The shortage of farm workers.
- Status of the Milk Marketing Board.
- EPA requirements governing the cleanup of Chesapeake Bay.
- The decreasing number of active farms.
- Inspections conducted by the Department.
- Use of mobile technology.
- The financial viability of the Race Horse Development Fund.
- Growth in the poultry industry.
- Promotion of industrial hemp.
- The Governor’s proposed funding cuts for agricultural programs and services.
- Preparations to combat Avian Flu.
Conservation and Natural Resources
Committee members explored funding requests from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources with Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn. Topics discussed included:
- The possibility of non-surface-disturbance natural gas development on public lands to generate $100 million for Growing Greener III environmental initiatives.
- The number of state parks visitors compared to other states.
- Details of a DCNR/PENNVEST loan to help a private company purchase forest land to promote water protection.
- Use of $3.382 million for upgrades for the statewide radio system use in state parks and state forests.
- Efforts to prevent the spread of invasive species.
- Timber sales at $24 million level but exceeding harvest goal.
- Possible locations for ATV parks.
- The need for more camping facilities in state parks.
- Several DCNR special funds are unsustainable without General Fund assistance.
Thursday March 1, 2018
Corrections and Probation & Parole
Corrections Secretary John Wetzel and Probation and Parole Board Chairman Leo Dunn took questions on the merger of the two operations, with the committee covering other topics as well, including:
- A moment of silence for Sgt. Mark Baserman, a corrections officer killed by an inmate at SCI Somerset.
- A review of efforts to contain Corrections salary and benefits cost.
- Projections for future prison population growth.
- Probation and Parole efforts to reduce recidivism.
- Steps that need to be taken in the wake of the assault on Sgt. Baserman.
- The cost of caring for elderly inmates.
- The cost of maintaining closed state correctional facilities prior to sale.
- Questions about statistics showing PA crime going down during drug epidemic.
- Staffing required to manage supervision of mentally ill inmates.
- Details of the Administration’s merger of Department of Corrections with the Board of Probation and Parole.
- The need for the proposed Corrections/Probation merger to be done through legislation, not executive order.
- Sentencing guidelines from the PA Commission on Sentencing and the impact on prison populations.
- Solitary confinement for death row inmates.
- Use of telemedicine to save taxpayer dollars.
- The trend in assaults on officers and overtime costs.
- Strategies to deal with drug-addicted inmates.
- The effect of Administration’s moratorium on executions.
Liquor Control Board
Representatives of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board discussed the effectiveness of recent liquor reform measures during a hearing with the Senate Appropriations Committee. Topics of discussion included:
- The impact of Liquor Code modernization on wine sales and staff complement.
- Holiday and overtime pay for state-owned liquor store employees.
- Increases in operating expenses and decreases in license fees.
- Slower growth in sales in comparison to the growth in operating costs.
- Liabilities for pensions, benefits, workers’ compensation and other employee expenses.
- The effect of product price changes on state system profits.
- The total costs for marketing and advertising.
- Compliance issues for new licensees.
- Efforts to protect against data breaches of consumer information.
- Expenses for alcohol education, awareness and treatment services.
- The number of state-owned stores that are not profitable.
- Revenue generated through direct shipments of wine to consumers.
- Exorbitant worker’s compensation costs for LCB employees.
- Ensuring accurate forecasting of expenses, sales growth and profits.
The Senate Appropriations Committee closed its second week of budget hearings by questioning Secretary Patrick McDonnell about the Department of Environmental Protection’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2018-19. Topics included:
- A proposed gas well permit fee increase.
- Continuing delays in issuing permits.
- Spending levels planned to meet Chesapeake Bay clean up mandates.
- The costs associated with meeting federal drinking water mandates.
- Repeal of the summer gas mandate.
- West Nile Virus and Zika Virus control.
- Confusion regarding on-lot sewage regulations.
- Massive storm water management regulations hitting municipalities.
- The Delaware River Basin Commission’s fracking ban.
- Efforts to remove waste tire piles.
- The need to eliminate vacant state-leased office space.
- Details of DEP’s use of special funds.
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