A report on the Legislative Session Week of February 19, 2013
Special Report: 2013-14 Budget Hearings
The Senate Appropriations Committee, which I serve on, wrapped up its first week of public hearings on Governor Corbett’s proposed state budget for the 2013-14 Fiscal Year. We heard detailed reports from several cabinet secretaries and other officials over the three-day period from February 18 through 21.
These sessions were very informative and gave me the opportunity to question Budget Secretary Charles Zogby on the closure of the New Castle Youth Development Center and receive assurances from Insurance Commissioner Michael Consedine that outreach efforts to increase CHIP enrollment will also target children living in rural areas.
I also had the opportunity to discuss my concerns with the outdated requirements of summer gas and emissions testing with Secretary Mike Krancer of the Department of Environmental Resources. I stressed that these should be top priorities for the DEP since they both place undue burdens on consumers.
Photos, audio and video from all of the hearings are available at: www.pasenategop.com.
Tuesday, February 19
During the budget hearing on the Governor’s Budget Office, I questioned Budget Secretary Charles Zogby on the closure of the New Castle Youth Development Center.
Governor’s Budget Office/Executive Offices/Office of the Governor
The Appropriations Committee opened the series of hearings with a discussion of the Governor’s Budget Office/Executive Offices/Office of the Governor with Budget Secretary Charles Zogby. Issues discussed during the hearing included: closure of the New Castle Youth Development Center; the governor’s decision against expanding Medicaid under Obamacare; revenue projections; funding for state police cadet classes; trends in gaming revenue; reduction of state jobs in the budget; the governor’s public pension reform proposals; consolidation of state data centers and technology upgrades; investigations of welfare/food stamp fraud; implications to the budget if privatization of the lottery management and liquor sales does not occur; employment opportunities for veterans; education funding; budgetary changes to the state Racehorse Development Fund; and spending for private sector consulting services.
Public Utility Commission
Public Utility Commission Chairman Robert Powelson and commissioners discussed the PUC’s $64.2 million state funding request and the commission’s increased responsibilities with natural gas development and other areas. Among the issues discussed was the commission’s request to raise the PUC’s budget cap to deal with the increased workload. Other topics discussed included: Hurricane Sandy utility response; power outage grid indicators for municipalities; status of Distribution Improvement Service Charge (DSIC) projects and ratepayer protections; Marcellus Shale impact fee revenue distribution; increasing access to natural gas; pipeline safety for unregulated gas lines; and Verizon’s request for relief of Chapter 30 broadband requirements.
To watch my conversation with Chairman Powelson on Distribution Improvement Services Charges, click here.
Independent Fiscal Office
The Senate Appropriations Committee discussed several issues with Independent Fiscal Office (IFO) Director Matthew Knittel, including: the differences between the governor’s revenue projections and those of the IFO; the impact of federal tax increases on Pennsylvania; the use of EITC; tax law enforcement; changes in the housing market; the IFO’s review of the costs of Medicaid expansion under Obamacare; state unemployment rate projections; and the impact of Obamacare on businesses.
Wednesday, February 20
Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee questioned Treasury Secretary Rob McCord on the department’s request for a 24.5 percent increase in funding and the costs driving that hike. Other questions centered on: a proposal to privatize the Pennsylvania Lottery; pension costs for teachers and state workers and their impact on the budget; growing concern about the rising debt of the Pennsylvania Turnpike; reforms being implemented at the Delaware River Port Authority; the status of an ongoing IT modernization project that is intended to improve efficiencies; finding ways to make college education more affordable for students and families; and the use and cost of outside contractors.
Attorney General Kathleen Kane answered questions on a wide range of issues, including how her office can continue to effectively fight crime with its current budget and the reasoning behind her decision to block a proposal to privatize management of the Pennsylvania Lottery. Senators also wanted more information on: efforts to get child predators off the streets and behind bars; the reduction in funding for the Bureau of Consumer Protection; the cost of witness relocation, particularly in the Philadelphia area, where the crime rate is high; enforcement of a new program to crack down on home improvement fraud and assurance that contractors are registering with the state; office funding cuts of 17 percent over the past five years and its impact on the state’s ability to fight crime; the growing threat of drug cartels and gangs, and increased drug use, particularly among young people.
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale outlined his office’s request for an 8.6 percent budget increase to pay for staff, operating expenses and new technology. Committee members also discussed: the technology shortcomings in the office; performance audits and follow-ups to audits; municipal pension audits; increases in the number of performance audits leading to a backlog of financial audits; auditor General oversight of judicial and legislative accounts; details on the office’s outside contracts; data storage system sharing; charter school audits –frequency and rigorousness; board of claims backlog; and school safety audits.
Thursday, February 21
Department of General Services
DGS Secretary Sheri Phillips discussed the Department’s efforts to support veteran-owned small businesses; the potential for streamlining the process for selling surplus state property; the number of outside contracts and consultants utilized by DGS; projected reductions in utility costs and energy use; reducing the state vehicle fleet and associated costs; the potential use of natural gas vehicles; heating costs at state correctional institutions; and mineral resource development on state land.
Department of Insurance
Insurance Commissioner Michael Consedine discussed several issues related to ObamaCare, including Medicaid expansion and the federal health exchange. Other topics included: CHIP enrollment; MCARE phase-out; fraud investigations; the economy’s impact on insurance companies; and competition in the marketplace.
Department of Environmental Protection
DEP Secretary Michael Krancer was questioned about funding for gas well inspectors and increased inspections, as well as the status of efforts aimed at reducing the DEP permit processing backlog. Other topics included: Susquehanna River water quality improvements; effect of pharmaceuticals in waterways; proposed regulations on septic system runoff; the quality of air coming in from surrounding states; new electronics recycling law enforcement mechanism; summer gas and State Implementation Plan review; scrap tire piles cleanup efforts; status of brownfields projects; future of hazardous sites cleanup in light of funding tied the Corporate Stock and Franchise Tax, which is being phased out; stormwater management regulations; increase in PENNVEST funding; and mandatory curbside recycling program.
Gaming Control Board
Pennsylvania’s gaming industry is strong and continues to grow, according to Pennsylvania Gaming Board Chairman Bill Ryan. He said Pennsylvania is now the nation’s second-largest gambling market. Members of the Committee asked Ryan about: criminal activity at casinos and the use of State Police at gaming facilities; concerns about the impact of Internet gaming on casinos; the definition of Keno in casinos and in the governor’s private lottery contract; and, competition from surrounding states and the need to keep the casino industry strong in Pennsylvania.