A report on the Legislative Session Week of February 10, 2014
Special Report: 2014-15 Budget Hearings
The Senate Appropriations Committee, which I serve on, held its first week of public hearings on Governor Corbett’s proposed state budget for the 2014-15 Fiscal Year. The Appropriations Committee heard detailed reports from several cabinet secretaries and other officials over the three-day period from February 10 through February 13. This special edition of Harrisburg Happenings provides day-by-day highlights from those hearings.
Be sure to check out the video links in this newsletter featuring my discussions with the Secretary of General Services and the state Insurance Commissioner. Photos, audio and video from the hearings is available at: www.pasenategop.com.
Monday, February 10, 2014
Governor’s Budget Office/Executive Offices/Office of the Governor
The Senate Appropriations Committee opened its three-week series of hearings on the governor’s proposed 2014-15 budget 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 the governor’s public pension reform proposals; revenues from small games of chance in taverns; the proposed transfer of funds from the Oil and Gas Fund; the Ready to Learn Block Grant proposal; welfare fraud investigations; funding for the statewide radio system; gas and oil drilling in state parks and forests; the keno proposal and the use of Lottery Fund revenues; concerns about overoptimistic revenue projections; charter school reform initiatives; ObamaCare and Medicaid expansion; privatization of food service operations in the Department of Corrections; and taxes paid by Marcellus Shale gas extraction businesses.
Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee questioned representatives of the Judiciary about a number of issues related to the state’s judicial system, including the effectiveness of the state’s 17 Veterans Courts in handling cases in a more efficient and cost-effective manner; computerization, technology updates and other modernization efforts and their role in promoting cost savings; the impact of changes in mandatory retirement ages for judges and judicial retention elections; and specialized courts, such as drug-courts to divert non-violent offenders from the traditional court system.
Independent Fiscal Office – Economic Outlook and Revenue Overview
The Senate Appropriations Committee discussed several issues with Independent Fiscal Office (IFO) Director Matthew Knittel, including various property tax reform proposals; the differences between the governor’s revenue projections and those of the IFO; state unemployment and job growth trends; growth in lottery revenues and the impact of adding keno; and taxes on the Marcellus Shale gas extraction industry.
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
Attorney General Kathleen Kane answered questions about her department’s efforts to crack down on crime and the budgetary challenges they are facing. Other areas of discussion included increased efforts to crack down on child predators and drug trafficking; the growing threat of heroin use and prescription drug abuse; an update on the department’s new child predator unit, which has been effective in tracking and prosecuting those who prey on children; enforcing provisions of the Tobacco Settlement Agreement to ensure that Pennsylvania continues to receive funding through the program; the results of the Gun Violence Task Force, which investigates and prosecutes the sources of illegal firearms used in crime; how Pennsylvania is faring in the war on drugs and new models to battle drug traffickers, particularly drug cartels; and the effectiveness of the state’s Home Improvement Consumer Protection Law and whether it needs to be amended to provide further protections to homeowners.
State Treasurer Rob McCord was asked to defend his request for increased staffing and provide an update of the multiyear request for IT improvements. Also discussed were the different debt service estimates from Treasury and the Corbett Administration, whether it is sustainable and its effect on the commonwealth’s bond rating; competing pension reform proposals focused on defined benefits vs. defined contribution plans, and the impact of Act 120 of 2010; ways to safeguard school districts facing skyrocketing employee retirement payments; proposals to reduce the time before unclaimed property can be turned over to Treasury; the health of Pennsylvania 529 college saving plans and their performance compared to those of other states; the impact of legislation implemented to reform the Appeals Board of Finance and Review; and the effect of the probe of the Chief Investment Officer of the Pennsylvania State Employees’ Retirement System.
During a budget hearing with Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, members of the Senate Appropriations Committee discussed the performance of public employee pension funds; efforts to reform the Delaware River Port Authority; collaboration with the Department of Education to improve school safety; previous finds of waste in the Department of Public Welfare; staffing and IT issues; drinking water quality; potential challenges for municipal pension systems; and liquid fuels audits.
Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Department of General Services
Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee raised a number of issues during a public hearing on the Department of General Services budget, including the cost savings realized through a reduction in the state vehicle fleet, including reduced maintenance costs; a progress report on the effectiveness of the downtown location act; and efforts to reduce energy costs.
Click here to watch a video of my questioning of Secretary Phillips about plans for redevelopment of the former New Castle Youth Development property and leases for mineral resource development on state-owned and State System of Higher Education-owned properties.
Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs
Drug and Alcohol Services Secretary Gary Tennis discussed programs and initiatives to reduce abuse, prevent recidivism and encourage long-term recovery. Questioning focused on the alarming increase in heroin use, and more fatalities associated with stronger strains of the drug; the opportunity for more drug treatment options under the Governor’s Healthy PA plan; the legalization of medical marijuana; abuse of prescription drugs – particularly among young people; and the success of the prescription drug take back program.
Department of Insurance
Insurance Commissioner Michael Consedine discussed several issues including CHIP enrollment and the impact of ObamaCare on the program; unfunded liability of the Underground Storage Tank Indemnification Fund; trends in the medical malpractice liability insurance marketplace; Medicaid expansion versus the Governor’s Healthy PA proposal; “steering” of consumers by insurance companies to pre-approved auto repair garages; federal changes to the flood insurance program; MCARE unfunded liability and potential phase-out; and the ongoing dispute between Highmark and UPMC.
Click here to watch a video of my questioning Insurance Commissioner Consedine about the unfunded liability of the Underground Storage Tank Indemnification Fund and trends in the medical malpractice liability insurance marketplace during the Senate Appropriations Committee budget hearing on the Department of Insurance.