A report on the Legislative Session Week of February 25, 2013
Special Report: 2013-14 Budget Hearings
The Senate Appropriations Committee, which I serve on, wrapped up its second 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 25 through 28.
Photos, audio and video from all of the hearings are available at: www.pasenategop.com.
Monday, February 25
Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board
Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee gathered information about the governor’s plan to privatize the sale of wine and liquor during a budget hearing with PLCB Chairman Joseph Brion. Other topics of discussion included beer sales in cafés adjacent to supermarkets; direct wine shipments to consumers; profitability and accessibility of current outlets; and other measures to modernize the state liquor store system.
Department of State
Senators raised a number of questions about the state’s voter identification law during a hearing on the proposed budget for the Department of State. Other issues that were addressed included the amount of money that could be saved by filing campaign reports online; the process for auditing campaign finance reports; ensuring that polling places are accessible to all voters; and legislation providing for online voter registration.
Military and Veterans Affairs
The Senate Appropriations Committee held a budget hearing on the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs with state Adjutant General (Major General) Wesley E. Craig. Issues discussed included the impact of sequestration (if it occurs) on Fort Indiantown Gap; Veterans’ Trust Fund activities; state veterans’ homes; status of Air National Guard units, including the 911th; legislation lifting civil service requirements for hiring nurses at veterans’ homes; the suicide rate in the National Guard; use of the Willow Grove Naval Air Station; disaster response efforts; support programs for military families; retention and recruiting of guard personnel; and waiting lists for veterans’ homes.
Conservation and Natural Resources
Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee questioned DCNR Secretary Richard Allan regarding Marcellus Shale drilling on state-owned lands. Other topics of discussion included state support for the Keystone Fund; infrastructure and maintenance needs, including dirt and gravel roads; potential increases in user fees; rental of existing structures to be used as cell towers; possible conversion of the DCNR fleet to natural gas; and funding for the Pennsylvania Heritage Areas Program.
Tuesday, February 26
To watch my questioning of Revenue Secretary Meuser about the Property Tax/Rent Rebate Program and the tax liability for Marcellus Shale royalties, click here.
Department of Revenue
State Revenue Secretary Dan Meuser discussed various aspects of the proposed private management agreement with Camelot for the Pennsylvania Lottery. Other topics discussed during the hearing included the projected impact of sequestration – if it occurs – on state revenues; the governor’s proposals to reduce business taxes to promote economic development; the Property Tax/Rent Rebate program; the tax liability for Marcellus Shale royalties; sales tax collections from online transactions; small games of chance reporting requirements for non-profit organizations; the costs of Medicaid expansion under Obamacare; and revenue projections through the remainder of the fiscal year.
Drug and Alcohol Programs
Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee discussed measures to combat prescription drug abuse and the potential effects of marijuana legalization during a budget hearing with Secretary of Drug and Alcohol Programs Gary Tennis. Other areas of discussion included the need for a cabinet-level agency separate from the Department of Health; trends in alcohol abuse among high school and college students; addiction treatment costs for individuals who are released from prison; improving the cost efficiency of service delivery; and methadone treatment costs.
Department of Health
During a public hearing on the Department of Health’s budget, senators discussed how the state can more effectively and affordably provide health care to Pennsylvania residents, particularly senior citizens and those in rural areas. Senators also raised questions about revenues in the Tobacco Settlement Fund; the growing shortage of primary care physicians; the role of community health centers in providing care to those who may not have insurance; providing health care to help seniors stay in their homes; education outreach programs; working to get doctors into rural communities; and increased funding to fight Alzheimer’s.
To watch my questioning about local health centers click here.
Wednesday, February 27
The committee discussed the impact of pension obligations on the state budget with officials from the State Employees’ Retirement System and the Public School Employees’ Retirement System. Topics included current returns and historic data of the pension funds; the impact of Act 120 of 2010; the possibility of changing future benefits to current employees; compensation for fund executives and consultants; the long-term effect of moving from defined benefits to defined contribution plans; salary growth assumptions and fund projections; the percentage of alternative investments and returns; Pennsylvania-based investments; the effect of inflation on the funds; and pension plan investment in public construction projects.
Department of Aging
During a budget hearing with Secretary of Aging Brian Duke, members of the Senate Appropriations Committee discussed the effects of the Attorney General’s rejection of the governor’s plan to privatize management of the Pennsylvania Lottery. Other topics of discussion included the funding formula for Area Agencies on Aging; waiting lists for home and community-based services; a requested increase in department staff; and measures in place to prevent elder abuse.
Pennsylvania State Police/Homeland Security
State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan discussed school safety issues and Pennsylvania’s homeland security efforts. Other issues discussed included the ongoing implementation of the statewide radio system; the impact of pension reform on the state police; cadet training classes and the state police complement; state police coverage of areas without local police departments; cybercrime; information databases; DNA testing capacities and backlog; trooper presence in casinos; and background checks for gun purchases.
Thursday, February 28
State Related Universities
Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee asked about the efforts by Penn State, Pitt, Temple and Lincoln University to keep costs and tuition rates down. Other subjects included the impact that the state appropriation to the schools has on their tuition levels; transparency and accountability of university boards; increasing student debt and how it is impacting enrollment levels; the growing trend toward online education; the universities’ efforts to help students graduate on time; and the role played by the universities in supporting agriculture research and outreach.