Harrisburg Happenings

A report on the Legislative Session Week of March 4, 2013

By Senator Elder Vogel
47th Senatorial District

Special Report: 2013-14 Budget Hearings

The Senate Appropriations Committee held its third week of public hearings on Governor Corbett’s proposed state budget for the 2013-14 Fiscal Year. The Appropriations Committee heard detailed reports from several cabinet secretaries and other officials over the three-day period from March 4-6. This special edition of Harrisburg Happenings provides day-by-day highlights from those hearings.

Photos, audio and video from the hearings are available at www.pasenategop.com.

Monday, March 4

Department of Education

I applauded Blackhawk High School for its efforts to prepare students for job opportunities created by Marcellus Shale extraction and urged state Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis to look at the school’s program, which studies various aspects of drilling operations, as a model for other programs across the state.

I am also concerned about the elimination of state funding for the popular “Science in Motion” in the Governor’s proposed budget. I suggested the state look toward capitalizing on private funding in a manner similar to that used by the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau to support its five mobile agricultural labs.

State Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis said state Basic Education Funding is at its highest in state history, despite a 10-year drop in overall student enrollment. Other topics discussed included charter school funding reform; a moratorium on school construction reimbursement; transparency in Intermediate Unit contracts with the state; recommendations for adequate administrator-student ratios in districts; the proposed use of liquor privatization proceeds for schools; natural gas drilling being taught as career pathway in schools; the elimination of Science in Motion funding; special education funding reform; the Governor’s School for the Sciences; the backlog in school safety assessments; school property taxes; the effect of student aid on increasing higher education costs; reasons for growth of charter schools; and the size of the Penn State Board of Trustees.

Department of Corrections/Probation and Parole

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel discussed the $23 million in cost savings to the state resulting from the closure of State Correctional Institution Cresson and State Correctional Institution Greensburg and the opening of State Correctional Institution Benner. Other issues discussed at the hearing included projected decreases in the prison population and potential prison closures; prison construction projects; efforts to reduce recidivism; the pay differential between correctional officers and supervisors; efforts to contain energy costs; concerns raised by the killing of Corrections Officer Eric Williams on February 25 at Canaan Federal Penitentiary; gang activity in prisons; expungement of criminal records; health issues related to prisoners; computer use by inmates; abuses of the Right to Know Law by inmates; privatization initiatives; county inmates collecting unemployment compensation; and education programs in prisons.

Department of Community and Economic Development

Senators discussed efforts to promote reduce business taxes, promote job creation and encourage companies to stay in and relocate to Pennsylvania. Other questions centered on the governor’s business tax reform package and how it would impact job creation; the status of the Royal Dutch Shell coal cracker plant deadline extension; the governor’s PA Business Development Authority proposal; the continuation of reduced-interest rate loans to business; the “Discovered and Developed in PA” program; the importance of the “Innovate PA” program; a proposal to move the port oversight from DCED to the Department of Transportation; and the dredging of the Delaware River.

Tuesday, March 5

Department of Public Welfare

Acting Secretary of Public Welfare Bev Mackereth also fielded questions regarding the cost and impacts of the potential expansion of Medicaid. Other topics of discussion included collection of delinquent nursing home assessments; the growth rate in Medical Assistance; how to improve county assistance; the reduction in waiting lists for services; management and construction of nursing homes; how additional funds for the Rising STARS program would be allocated; progress of a pilot program that requires public benefit recipients to pass a drug test; ways to improve communication with state residents; problems resulting from the privatization of payroll services for direct care workers; the effectiveness of block grants for human services funding; a change in the funding formula for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape; and services available for veterans.

State System of Higher Education

Acting Chancellor Peter Garland and the presidents of Edinboro and Lock Haven universities discussed efforts to keep down costs and tuition, and implementation of the 2012 Higher System of Education Modernization Act. Other topics included the burden of increased charges and fees on students; SSHE administrative size and makeup; the new faculty contract; private fundraising in lieu of budget increases; the transfer of community college credits to SSHE schools; deferred maintenance and capital projects; SSHE and the Center for Rural Pennsylvania; nursing school opportunities; accessibility for students with disabilities; tuition for non-citizen students; State Police threat assessment review of buildings; effects of flat and reduced state funding; and ways to make SSHE schools more entrepreneurial.

Department of Agriculture

I questioned the impact of various state funding changes on Pennsylvania’s farmers during the Appropriations Committee budget hearing with state Agriculture Secretary George Greig. In particular, I asked whether a proposed increase in the Fiscal Year 2013-14 budget would offset the impact of funding reductions over the previous six years on the Animal Health and Diagnostic Commission.

I also asked if revenues from the Marcellus Shale Impact Fee are adequately supporting Pennsylvania’s Conservation Districts. Other areas I discussed included the impact of a decrease in funding for Penn State Ag Sciences on its research and extension programs; and the effect of mandates and regulations set by Chesapeake Bay Programs and the Environmental Protection Agency on farmers.

Other members of the Appropriations Committee questioned Secretary Greig about the financial impact of the elimination of the inheritance tax on family farms; monitoring and potential action to prevent chronic wasting disease in animals; federal dollars and state support available for the State Food Purchase Program; the administration’s commitment to the Race Horse Development Fund; and new agriculture transportation measures.

Wednesday, March 6

Department of Transportation

Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch faced extensive questioning on the administration’s plan to boost transportation funding by $1.8 billion. Topics included problems caused by the current funding shortfall; effect on consumers of lifting the Oil Company Franchise Tax; projects to be funded by new revenue; Public-Private Partnership (P3) transportation projects being developed; port authorities and mass transit funding; mass transit consolidation; registration and license fees; funding package effect on county-owned bridges as well as gravel and dirt roads; increased local match for mass transit; plans to reduce highway congestion; bundling bridge construction projects; alternative rail funding; increased payments to municipalities; and the financial outlook of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Department of Labor and Industry

During a budget hearing with Labor and Industry Secretary Julia Hearthway, members of the Senate Appropriations Committee praised the bond issuance to resolve debt in the Unemployment Compensation (UC) Trust Fund. Other topics of discussion included the effect of federal sequestration on programs and services; closure of the Philadelphia UC call center; the impact of the Industry Partnerships program; changes to EBT debit cards; the future of the Self-Employment Assistance Program; coverage for volunteer firefighters through the State Workers’ Insurance Fund; UC fraud by inmates in state and county prisons; the impact of the work search requirement to receive UC benefits; possible expansion of the successful Strategic Early Warning Network program; and potential measures to reduce Workers’ Compensation fraud.

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