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A report on the budget hearings held during the week of February 19, 2019
Special Report: 2019-20 Budget Hearings
The Senate Appropriations Committee, on which I serve, held its first week of public hearings on Governor Wolf’s proposed state budget for the 2019-20 Fiscal Year. We heard detailed reports from several cabinet secretaries and other officials over the three-day period of February 19-21. More information on the budget, as well as photos, audio and video from the hearings, is available at: www.pasenategop.com/state-budget/
Tuesday, February 19, 2019
Department of Revenue/Lottery
The Senate Appropriations Committee opened its three weeks of hearings on the Governor’s proposed 2019-20 budget with state Revenue Secretary Dan Hassell. Topics discussed during the hearing included:
- Cost savings from the Revenue Department’s ongoing technology modernization project.
- The Governor’s proposed combined reporting requirement for businesses.
- Public confidence in the lottery system.
- Taxation of craft brewers.
- RFPs for I-lottery and scratch-off games.
- Issues related to the state’s vendor for lottery printing services.
- Income limits for the Property Tax Rent Rebate program.
- Projected job losses from the Governor’s proposal to increase the minimum wage.
- State tax collection from online sales.
- Advertising costs for lottery scratch-off tickets.
- Minimum salary of $45,000 for teachers.
- The impact of federal tax changes on the PA 592 and ABLE programs.
- Taxes on medical marijuana.
- Pennsylvania’s tax credit programs.
- Changes in the Enhanced Revenue Collection Account.
- Updates to the tax code and keeping it current with the modern economy.
Independent Fiscal Office
Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee questioned Independent Fiscal Office Director Matthew Knittel about:
- Growing concerns about the national economic outlook and how that slowdown could impact Pennsylvania.
- Special funds outside of the state budget and what happens when reserves are built up.
- Pennsylvania’s efforts to attract and retain businesses and create new jobs.
- The impact of performance-based budgeting.
- The bearing of a minimum wage increase on first-time job holders.
- The influence of public policy decisions on population demographics and economic development.
- Video gaming terminals’ impact on lottery sales.
- The impact of federal tax law changes on state programs.
Public Utility Commission
The Senate Appropriations Committee discussed several issues with Public Utility Commission Chair Gladys Brown and her fellow Commissioners. I discussed the high cost of renewable energy and how making energy more expensive would make Erie businesses less competitive and cost local jobs.
Other issues discussed during the hearing included:
- Assessment fees on regulated utilities.
- The need for reliable broadband in rural areas.
- Outdated regulations on telecommunication carriers of last resort.
- Nuclear energy and the impact of not including it in the state’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards.
- Steps to ensure the safety of communities near natural gas pipelines.
- Increasing the number of gas pipeline safety inspectors.
- Collection and dispersal of natural gas impact fees.
- Issues related to “Smart meters.”
- The cost of the PUC taking over the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority.
- Investments by gas companies in upgrading pipelines.
Wednesday, February 21, 2019
Department of State
The Senate Appropriations Committee discussed several issues with Acting Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar. I asked Secretary Boockvar about what can be done to provide voters with post-vote verification at the polls.
Other topics discussed during the hearing included.
- The Administration’s mandate forcing counties to replace voting machines.
- Changes to the state licensing system.
- Assistance for veterans transitioning to civilian life.
- Efforts to make the lobbying disclosure process fully funded by fees paid by lobbyists.
- Background checks for former inmates seeking state licenses and efforts to reduce recidivism.
- The need to review the state Election Code for updates and improvements
Thursday, February 21, 2019
State System of Higher Education
Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee discussed the need to reexamine the cost and mission of the State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) with Chancellor Dan Greenstein. Other topics of conversation included:
- Efforts to reach additional students in light of declining PASSHE enrollment.
- The financial and accreditation challenges facing Cheyney University.
- Personnel and staffing reductions as a result of declining enrollment.
- How PASSHE can stay relevant and give students a good return on investment.
- Efforts to improve student safety.
- Ways PASSHE is working to meet the needs of the workforce.
- Changing the way universities are advertised and marketed.
- Strategies to prevent future work stoppages by PASSHE faculty.
- Retention and graduation rates.
- Incentives for Pennsylvania students to enroll at in-state schools.
- Regulatory reforms necessary to support PASSHE.
State Police/Homeland Security
The Senate Appropriations Committee questioned Acting State Police Commissioner Lieutenant Colonel Robert Evanchick and other officials about several topics. I discussed the proposed fee for local State Police coverage of municipalities without full-time police departments, trooper overtime costs and pension costs
Other issues discussed at the hearing included:
- The next trooper cadet class and overall State Police complement.
- The array of services provided by the State Police.
- Establishment of Risk and Vulnerability Assessment Teams to boost school safety and the current backlog in safety assessments.
- State Police crime lab costs and backlogs.
- The costs and policy associated with body cameras.
- Status of the new statewide public radio system and an audit of the procurement process for the project.
- Efforts to combat human trafficking.
Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency/Fire Commissioner
Acting Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) Secretary Randy Padfield and state Fire Commissioner Bruce Trego discussed issues related to public safety. I asked Fire Commissioner Trego about the use of sprinklers versus monitored smoke detectors in preventing fire-related deaths.
Other issues discussed at the hearing included:
- The use of online training for volunteer firefighters.
- Incentives, including grant funding, to encourage volunteer fire companies to consolidate.
- Counseling resources for volunteer fire and EMS personnel.
- Emergency declarations restricting commercial vehicles on major roads and the impact on businesses.
- Funding for disaster relief and PEMA’s other unencumbered fund balances.