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A report on the budget hearings held during the week of February 25, 2019
Special Report: 2019-20 Budget Hearings
The Senate Appropriations Committee, on which I serve, held its second week of public hearings on Governor Wolf’s proposed state budget for the 2019-20 Fiscal Year. The Appropriations Committee heard detailed reports from several cabinet secretaries and other officials over the four-day period of February 25-28. 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 25, 2019
Department of Labor & Industry
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:
- Encouraging 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.
- Making apprenticeships more available for skilled labor positions.
- Helping able-bodied Medicaid recipients find long-term jobs.
- Eliminating redundancies and improving outcomes in job training programs.
- The impact of the closure of nuclear plants.
- Coordination of state agencies relating to workforce development.
- Prevailing wage requirements for taxpayer-funded projects.
- The number of hourly workers earning the current minimum wage.
- The impact of a minimum wage increase on higher-earning employees.
- Efforts to help low-income employees access job training and skills.
- The governor’s proposed PA Farm Bill.
- Helping incarcerated individuals reintegrate into the workforce.
- The number of jobs that could be eliminated by an increase in the minimum wage.
- Vocational rehabilitation programs and the number of people served by increasing funding.
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 marijuana sales.
- A proposed staffing increase.
Department of Transportation
During the budget hearing with the Department of Transportation, I told Secretary Leslie Richards the formula for allocating road improvement funds needs to be changed for areas with extreme weather, such as Erie.
Other issues discussed during the hearing included:
- 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 to fill open PENNDOT positions.
- Costly new testing equipment mandated by the Enhanced Vehicle Emissions Program.
- The impact on farmers and communities of highway truck bans during storms.
- An update on replacement of structurally deficient bridges.
- Steps taken after it was revealed that 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.
Tuesday, February 26, 2019
State Related Universities
The Senate 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. I asked President Barron for an update on anti-hazing initiatives at Penn State following passage of the Timothy J. Piazza Anti-Hazing bill.
Other topics discussed at the hearing included:
- The missions of the state-related schools in relation to the State System of Higher Education.
- The value of a possible Higher Education Funding Commission.
- The declining college-age population and higher education enrollment.
- Steps being taken to combat Pennsylvania’s opioid crisis.
- Student mental health and suicide prevention plans.
- The Pennsylvania Commission for Agricultural Education Excellence.
- The economic impact of college campuses on surrounding communities.
- The impact that the Governor’s flat funding will have on tuition.
The Senate Appropriations Committee discussed several issues with representatives of the judicial branch. 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 regard to venue shopping.
- Efforts by 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 they have affected judicial costs.
- Steps to improve cybersecurity and protect against 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 Dr. Davie Jane Gilmour, President of Pennsylvania College of Technology about the need for a skilled workforce and the retention of graduates in Pennsylvania during the budget hearing on her institution.
Other issues raised during the hearing included:
- 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.
- 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.
- Programs and positions eliminated by the school.
- The state’s financial support of the school.
Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology
I discussed potential pathways to help a larger number of unemployed individuals transition into the workforce during the budget hearing with the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology.
Other topics of discussion included:
- Efforts to meet the educational needs of low-income students.
- 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.
- Programs to train students from low-income families for high-paying careers.
- Demographics of the school and programs that are most popular and successful for students.
- Partnerships between higher education and the business community.
Wednesday, February 27, 2019
Department of Health
I raised concerns about the overprescribing of opioids for routine procedures, such as the removal of wisdom teeth, during the budget hearing with the Department of Health.
Other topics discussed included:
- A study of recreational marijuana use.
- Drug treatment plans and drug testing when providing prescriptions for opioid use.
- Health risks posed to adolescents who smoke marijuana.
- The processing of rape evidence kits and a health care provider hotline.
- Delays in providing birth certificates and other vital records.
- Misinformation about childhood vaccinations and the resurgence of polio and measles.
- The shortage of ambulance staff and services, particularly in rural Pennsylvania.
- The impact of the Governor’s emergency declaration on opioid abuse on small towns.
- Efforts to update hospital regulations on the providing of anesthesia.
- The PA Rural Health Model.
Department of Human Services
I asked about new approaches to help individuals break the cycle of generational poverty through education during the budget hearing with representatives of the Department of Human Services. I also discussed approaches to improve health care options for elderly Pennsylvanians.
Other topics of discussion included:
- The sustainability of Medicaid and expectations for recipients.
- The effectiveness of public assistance programs in helping people transition from welfare to work.
- Efforts to reduce pharmacy benefit manager costs and increase transparency of prescription costs.
- The Governor’s proposed new tax on ambulatory surgery centers.
- Potential fee changes that could jeopardize services provided to individuals with disabilities.
- Waivers that allow able-bodied individuals without dependents to receive SNAP benefits without meeting work and job search requirements.
- Changes to the Medical Assistance Transportation Program.
- Loopholes to child abuse reporting requirements.
- The growth in neonatal abstinence syndrome due to the opioid epidemic.
- The performance and models for Centers of Excellence.
- Early intervention services for at-risk children.
- Long-term care for older Pennsylvanians.
- Cooperation with the Department of Labor & Industry in workforce training and development.
- Updates on programs to protect vulnerable populations.
Thursday, February 28, 2019
Department of Corrections/Board of Probation & Parole
During the budget hearing for the Department of Corrections/Office of Probation and Parole, I shared with Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel my proposal to train eligible inmates to become volunteer firefighters. Other members of the Senate Appropriations Committee raised a wide range of other topics involving state prisons, inmate populations and how to reduce recidivism rates.
- Concerns that individuals are being placed in corrections centers that are not near where they live.
- Medication-assisted treatment for inmates who are being released.
- The use of telemedicine to treat Pennsylvania’s aging prison population.
- The high cost of moving inmates from Graterford, which closed, to the new SCI Phoenix.
- What the Legislature can do to help those leaving prison obtain employment.
- Efforts 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.
- The threat of inmates being human-trafficked from inside a prison.
- Prison capacity, the acceptance of inmates from other states, and cost-savings measures.
Liquor Control Board
I told members of the Liquor Control Board that I have serious issues with the state store system acting like a business when it is a government monopoly. I also stressed that money used to advertise state stores and alcohol should be put to better use.
Other Senators asked questions about:
- Wine sales versus liquor sales and growth projections in the years ahead.
- The potential for a deal to sell Pennsylvania dairy products to Cuba in exchange for rum.
- Pennsylvania wines featured in state stores and their popularity.
- Profits from auctioning liquor licenses and the number of licenses sold.
- On-site lottery machines.
Department of Environmental Protection
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.
Senate Appropriations 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 the implementation of the Legislature’s school safety initiatives.
- The use of school safety grants to hire armed security guards.
- The reduction in school safety funding in the Governor’s proposed budget.
- The juvenile justice placement process.
- An update on the status of Children’s Advocacy Centers to help child abuse victims.
- The Juvenile Justice System Enhancement Strategy data review.