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Special Report: 2018-19 Budget Hearings

The Senate Appropriations Committee held its second week of public hearings on Governor Wolf’s proposed state budget for the 2018-19 Fiscal Year. The Appropriations Committee heard detailed reports from several cabinet secretaries and other officials over the four-day period of February 26 – March 1. This special edition of Harrisburg Happenings provides day-by-day highlights from those hearings.

More information on the budget, as well as photos, audio and video from the hearings, is available at: www.pasenategop.com/state-budget/


Monday, February 26, 2018

Department of Labor & Industry

The Appropriations Committee questioned Labor and Industry Secretary Gerard Oleksiak about Pennsylvania’s posting a higher unemployment rate than the national average in recent years. Other topics included:

  • Improvements to Unemployment Compensation Call Centers and solvency of the Service and Infrastructure Improvement Fund.
  • The number and profile of minimum wage earners.
  • Estimated job losses that would result from the Governor’s proposed minimum wage increase.
  • Workforce development and apprenticeship programs.
  • Funding cuts for vocational rehabilitation services.
  • Regulations limiting apprenticeship opportunities for non-union shops.
  • The Governor’s opposition to work requirements for able-bodied Medicaid recipients.
  • Efforts to move welfare recipients to work.
  • Prevailing wage reform.
  • Support to help struggling businesses avert layoffs.
  • The Governor’s elimination of funding for the New Choices/New Options program for women.
  • The growing problem of employers unable to find potential workers who can pass a drug test.
  • Skilled positions that go unfilled.

Video of the hearing. 

Department of General Services

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  • Repealing outdated regulations.
  • Updating procurement laws.
  • The scoring of applicants for medical cannabis licenses.
  • Funding for the Capitol Police.
  • Efforts to improve energy efficiency.
  • The Farm Show lease-back agreement.
  • The consolidation of mail operations.
  • Implementation of the COSTARS program.
  • Reuse of vacant state-owned office space.
  • Delays in renovating the East Wing rotunda.
  • The transition from COGENT to IDEMIA fingerprinting service.
  • The upgrade of the statewide radio system.
  • Delays and cost overruns for completion of SCI Phoenix.
  • Changes to the state’s vehicle fleet.

Video of the hearing.

Department of Transportation

Transportation Secretary Leslie Richards discussed PENNDOT’s efforts to maintain the state’s transportation system. Other topics addressed included:

  • The Transportation Funding Plan.
  • Efforts to rehabilitate structurally deficient bridges.
  • Turnpike usage and its fiscal outlook.
  • The implementation of Real ID.
  • Auto emission requirements.
  • The use of traffic circles to improve safety.
  • Weather impacts on roads.
  • The Green Light Go Program.
  • The role played by Pennsylvania’s ports.
  • Initiatives to address traffic congestion.

Video of the hearing.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

State Related Universities

The Senate Appropriations Committee took testimony from the leaders of Pennsylvania’s four state-related universities. Topics discussed included:

  • Declining enrollment at the State System of Higher Education schools and the impact on state-related universities.
  • Efforts to contain costs to ease the tuition burden on students. 
  • Efforts to ensure campus safety.
  • Steps to prepare graduates for viable careers.
  • Coordination with community colleges and the State System of Higher Education.
  • Creating entrepreneurs and making venture capital investments.
  • The importance of agricultural education and research.
  • The impact of pension costs on tuition hikes.
  • Efforts 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.

Video of the hearing. 

Judiciary

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:

  • Costs to counties created by the court’s redistricting map.
  • Payments to out-of-state expert to draw maps.
  • Educating voters about changing congressional districts.
  • The opioid crisis and the need to effectively treat those who are addicted.
  • Problem-solving courts across Pennsylvania.  
  • Violations of the Brady Rule that requires prosecutors to provide exculpatory evidence to the defense.
  • Releasing violent juveniles back into the community too quickly.
  • Underutilized state office buildings.
  • Policies on out-of-state travel.
  • The use of mental health courts and other specialty courts.
  • Protecting human trafficking victims.
  • Funding for the statewide judicial computer project.

Video of the hearing.

Pennsylvania College of Technology

The Senate Appropriations 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.
  • Recruitment efforts.
  • The college’s request for an increased state appropriation.
  • Plans to capitalize on the development of the shale cracker plant.
  • Capital improvement plans.
  • Tuition and associated costs and student debt.

Video of the hearing. 

Inspector General

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 the statewide radio system.
  • An overview on investigating welfare fraud.
  • Why the report on the Lieutenant Governor’s misconduct was not publicly released.
  • Fraudulent activity 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.

Video of the hearing. 

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Department of Military & Veterans Affairs

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 compared to care in nursing homes.
  • Strategies to provide more home-based care to veterans.
  • Outreach efforts to improve awareness of programs for veterans.
  • Increased use of telemedicine services.
  • Decreased available beds in state veterans’ homes.
  • Cost savings from privatization.
  • Funding for the Civil Air Patrol.
  • National Guard operations.
  • Job placement for returning service members.
  • Funding for post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Addressing veteran suicide rates.
  • Donations to the Veterans’ Trust Fund.

Video of the hearing. 

Department of Agriculture

Senate 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 regarding 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.
  • Preparing against Avian Flu.

Video of the hearing. 

Department of Conservation & Natural Resources

Senate Appropriations Committee members explored funding requests from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) with Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn. Topics discussed included:

  • Natural gas development to generate funds for Growing Greener III.
  • Comparison of state parks’ visitors to other states.
  • A loan to a private company to purchase forest land for water protection.
  • Upgrades to the statewide radio system.
  • Efforts to prevent the spread of invasive species.
  • Timber sales.
  • Locations for ATV parks.
  • The need for more camping facilities.
  • Sustainability of DCNR special funds.

Video of the hearing.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Department of Corrections/ Board of 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 recently killed by an inmate at SCI Somerset.
  • Efforts to contain salary and benefits costs.
  • Projections for future prison population growth. 
  • Efforts to reduce recidivism.
  • Steps 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.
  • Statistics showing crime going down even as Pennsylvania faces an opioid epidemic.
  • Supervision of mentally ill inmates.
  • Details of the merger of Department of Corrections and the Board of Probation and Parole.
  • Sentencing guidelines and the impact on prison populations.
  • Solitary confinement for death row inmates.
  • Use of telemedicine.
  • Trends in assaults on officers and overtime costs.
  • Strategies to deal with drug-addicted inmates.
  • The effect of the Governor’s moratorium on executions.

Video of the hearing. 

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 liquor store employees.
  • Increases in operating expenses and decreases in license fees.
  • Liabilities for pensions, benefits, workers’ compensation and other employee expenses.
  • The effect of product price changes on profits.
  • Costs for marketing and advertising.
  • Efforts to protect against data breaches of consumer information.
  • Expenses for alcohol education, awareness and treatment services.
  • Stores that are not profitable.
  • Revenue from direct shipments of wine to consumers.
  • Forecasting of expenses, sales growth and profits.

Video of the hearing. 

Department of Environmental Protection

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.
  • Delays in issuing permits.
  • Spending to meet Chesapeake Bay clean up mandates.
  • Addressing EPA drinking water mandates.
  • Repeal of the summer gas mandate.
  • West Nile Virus and Zika Virus control.
  • Confusion regarding on-lot sewage regulations.
  • Local storm water management.
  • The Delaware River Basin Commission’s fracking ban.
  • Waste tire piles.
  • Vacant state-leased office space.
  • Use of special funds.

Video of the hearing.

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