Senator Bob Mensch E-Newsletter

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The Senate Appropriations Committee wrapped up three weeks of public hearings on the proposed 2020-21 state budget. Below is a summary of the third week, including key topics discussed, my questions for administration officials, and video of each hearing. Week 1 | Week 2

This Week’s Budget Hearings:

  • Department of Agriculture
  • University of Penn Veterinary School
  • Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences
  • State-Related Universities
  • Department of Conservation & Natural Resources
  • Penn College of Technology, Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, Community Colleges
  • Department of Environmental Protection
  • PA Professional Liability Joint Underwriting Association
  • Budget Office

Monday 

Department of Agriculture 

3/2/20 – Budget Hearing Q&A: Agriculture

During the budget hearing with the Department of Agriculture, I discussed the impact of the proposed transfers from the Race Horse Development Fund and asked about efforts to address food insecurity.

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 proposed transfers from the Race Horse Development Fund.
  • The Beginning Farmer Tax Credit program.
  • Efforts to support dairy farms.
  • Amusement ride inspections.
  • Farm land preservation.
  • Efforts to make it more convenient to license dogs.
  • The economic potential of agri-tourism.
  • The PA Preferred program.
  • The impact of prevailing wage requirements.
  • Addressing food insecurity.
  • Efforts to meet the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay watershed requirements.
  • The impact of MS4 on farmers.
  • Funding to address the Spotted Lanternfly and Chronic Wasting Disease.
  • USDA’s Farm Service Agency.
  • State grants to promote agriculture.
  • Biosecurity initiatives.
  • The future of industrial hemp agriculture in Pennsylvania.
  • Issues surrounding organic farming. 

Full Hearing 

University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine 

Senate Appropriations Committee members discussed a number of issues during the budget hearing on the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, including:

  • Benefits from the state’s investment in the school.
  • The percentage of graduates who stay in Pennsylvania and the student loan debt they incur.
  • Abuse of opiates provided by veterinarians.
  • Impact of avian Influenza.
  • The shortage of veterinarians in certain fields.
  • Chronic Wasting Disease in deer.
  • Dual enrollment programs in health care and social services.
  • Consolidation of facilities at the school.
  • Drug testing of race horses.
  • Challenges presented by African Swine Fever. 

Full Hearing 

Penn State University Ag Research and Extension

During a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Penn State’s agricultural research and extension services, senators asked about programs and services that are being provided to the agriculture community.  Topics discussed included:

  • What is being done to provide mental health first aid in PA farming communities.
  • Promoting participation in the census.
  • What farms are doing to reduce sediment and nitrogen runoffs and to how to encourage best practices.
  • Efforts to survey farmers on what they are doing to control pollution.
  • Concerns about the growing incidence of Lyme disease in Pennsylvania.
  • Ongoing attempts to suppress the Spotted Lanternfly population.
  • Concern about the impact of insecticides on honey bees.
  • Growing enrollment numbers and placement statistics.

Full Hearing 

Tuesday 

State-Related Universities

At a public hearing on the state-related universities, (Penn State, Pitt, Temple, and Lincoln), members of the Senate Appropriations Committee discussed many challenges facing institutions of higher learning including:

  • The use of satellite campuses to make higher education more available and affordable.
  • Benchmarking faculty costs in the state-related universities and how they compare to other institutions.
  • High student loan debt and increased tuition costs.
  • How the state-related universities are coping with flat funding while also keeping tuition costs down.
  • What is being done to keep in-state students and help them manage debt wisely.
  • The increased competition resulting from declining enrollment.
  • A strategy for recruiting out-of-state students.
  • Successful efforts to help students graduate in four years.
  • The competition between the state system and state-related universities.

Full Hearing

Department of Conservation and Natural Resources 

3/3/20 – Budget Hearing Q&A: DCNR
The deployment of the P25 State Radio System on DCNR land and removal of low-wall dams were part of my discussion with DCNR officials.

Committee members sought proposed spending details from Secretary Cindy Dunn, and discussed the following topics:

  • The request for more state park and forest rangers, and the scope of their authority.
  • DCNR involvement in Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts.
  • The projected increase in personnel costs and decrease in operating costs.
  • The need to permit more cell and radio towers on DCNR land.
  • The importance of agri-tourism in attracting extended-stay visitors.
  • The projected decline in timber sales.
  • The quality of state park radio system.
  • A timeline for closing the gaps in PA Heritage Trails.
  • The impact of the state moratorium on oil and gas leases on state park land.
  • The impact of the reduction in Oil and Gas Lease Fund revenue.
  • The status of deployment of the P25 State Radio System on DCNR land.
  • Efforts to remove hazardous low-wall dams.
  • High water levels at Presque Isle State Park and the dire need to study alternative breakwater strategies.
  • Efforts to reduce acid mine drainage.
  • Recreational ATV riding in state parks and forests.
  • The slight decline in state park attendance last year.
  • Impact of the spotted lanternfly on state parks and forests.
  • The level of sustainable General Fund support of DCNR operations.

Full Hearing 

Penn College of Technology, Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, Community Colleges 

Senate Appropriations Committee members emphasized the importance of career and technical training during a hearing with representatives of the Pennsylvania College of Technology, Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, and Pennsylvania’s community colleges. Topics of discussion included:

  • Potential tuition and fee increases.
  • Changes in enrollment.
  • The success of dual enrollment programs.
  • Differences in tuition for out-of-state students.
  • How the institutions are working to “right-size” programs for students.
  • The diversity of enrolled students.
  • The value and challenges of articulation agreements.
  • The importance of financial literacy programs.
  • Programs eliminated based on a lack of demand from both students and employers. 
  • Steps community colleges and technical schools are taking to encourage high school students to attend.
  • Efforts to meet the demands of today’s workforce.
  • The return on investment and opportunity cost related to budget requests.

Full Hearing

Wednesday 

Department of Environmental Protection

Questions for DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell included:

  • The request for additional Chesapeake Bay Agricultural Source Abatement staffing.
  • Oversight of stream and river buffer projects to reduce sediment.
  • Pennsylvania’s spending and performance in Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts versus Maryland’s and Virginia’s.
  • The solvency of the Hazardous Site Cleanup Fund and the administration’s proposed $1 per ton increase to the tipping fee on municipal waste landfill deposits to bolster it.
  • The administration imposing additional fees on entities considered “public water supplier,” hurting churches and others.
  • Cleaning up PA’s scrap tire and waste coal piles.
  • The need for NOAA weather data to back up the administration’s RGGI & TCI climate change plans, which will hit PA consumers with new costs. 
  • Help Presque Isle State Park, which is being ripped apart by erosion and reducing Lake Erie algae blooms.
  • PA farmers implementing costly measures to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
  • While residents are forced to pay stormwater management fees, some state agencies are refusing to pay.
  • What the administration plans to do for dislocated coal plant workers.
  • Making DEP’s budget financially sustainable.

Full Hearing 

PA Professional Liability Joint Underwriting Association 

3/4/20 – Budget Hearing Q&A: Professional Liability Joint Underwriting Association

I discussed the PA Joint Underwriting Association’s investments, reserve funds and rate competitiveness during this hearing. 

Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee questioned Pennsylvania Professional Liability Joint Underwriting Association (JUA) President Susan Sersha about factors affecting the medical liability insurance market. Some of the topics of discussion included:

  • Staffing, operations and the number of policyholders covered.
  • Legal changes that have affected JUA.
  • The current market for medical liability insurance.
  • Expanding access to health care to underserved areas.
  • Investments, reserve funds and competitiveness of rates.
  • The amount of surplus money that could safely be appropriated to other causes.

Full Hearing

Budget Office

3/4/20 – Budget Hearing Q&A: Budget Secretary

I asked Budget Secretary Jen Swails about the impact of the governor’s proposed transfers from the Race Horse Development Fund on employees in the industry, and funding for higher education and enrollment in those schools.

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 from the Race Horse Development Fund.
  • The cost of higher education.
  • The prevailing wage’s impact on taxpayers.
  • The proposed fee for State Police Service.
  • Reduced funding for school safety.
  • Changes to the state’s contract for the expansion of internet service.
  • Solvency of the hazardous site cleanup fund.
  • The reliance on supplemental appropriations.
  • The year-end revenue estimate for FY 2019-20.
  • Projections for the Lottery Fund. 

Full Hearing

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