A report on the Legislative Session Week of February 18, 2014
Special Report: 2014-15 Budget Hearings
The Senate Appropriations Committee, which I serve on, held its second 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 18 through February 20. 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 Department of Environmental Protection, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board and the Department of Health.
Photos, audio and video from the hearings are available at www.pasenategop.com.
Tuesday, February 18
Department of Revenue
State Revenue Secretary Dan Meuser discussed sales tax collections from online transactions; options for covering the unfunded liabilities of the state’s public pension funds; trends in lottery profits; gaming expansion and the potential impact of adding keno; the tax liability for Marcellus Shale businesses; a proposed change to the timeframe for disposal of unclaimed property; the governor’s revenue projections; the Property Tax/Rent Rebate program; revenues expected from small games of chance in taverns; differences between the projections by the Administration and the Independent Fiscal Office; cigarette taxes and taxation of other tobacco products; technology improvements; and Pennsylvania’s recovery from the recession
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 Veterans’ Trust Fund activities; veteran designation on drivers’ licenses; veterans’ outreach programs; National Guard deployment status; impact of federal funding reduction; sales of obsolete armories; support programs for service members and military families; funding, staffing and waiting lists for Pennsylvania’s veterans’ homes; efforts to help homeless veterans; the statewide radio system and its adaptability for the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs’ needs; elimination of funding for the Civil Air Patrol; and a pilot program for outreach to veterans in rural areas.
The Appropriations Committee questioned officials representing the State Employees’ Retirement System (SERS) and the Public School Employees’ Retirement System (PSERS). Topics included estimates for combined unfunded liabilities standing at $50.5 billion; the effect of ACT 120 rate collars on school districts, and the act’s impact on the systems; the use of hedge funds in the systems and returns compared to traditional investments; use of Pennsylvania-based asset managers; plans to transfer $225 million in cash and investments from the Tobacco Settlement Fund to PSERS; cash flow problems caused by underfunding of the systems; the probe into the actions of the SERS Chief Investment Officer and safeguards to protect funds; the payment of high basis points for bond management and consultant fees; and, the legislature’s need for guidance in debate over pension reform.
Department of Environmental Protection
Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee questioned Secretary of Environmental Protection Chris Abruzzo regarding several issues relating to the natural gas industry, including an update on the well setback provisions in Act 13; the level of funding available to deal with unforeseen emergencies such as the recent well fires in Greene County; ways to improve emergency response to similar emergencies; potential health studies for residents living in the Marcellus Shale region; and how funding from fee increases for gas well permits will be utilized. Other issues of discussion included improving the permitting process; funding for Conservation Districts; additional funding for the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Fund; status of the Alternative Fuels Incentive Grant Program; funding for the Delaware River Basin Commission; emission testing standards; and the department’s plan to clean up waste tire piles.
Click here to watch my discussion with Secretary Abruzzo regarding the burdens placed on consumers by auto emission testing standards and the effect of “summer gas” on fuel prices in Western Pennsylvania.
Wednesday, February 19
Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Secretary Ellen Ferretti was asked about how the proposed budget will impact the department’s mission, which includes maintaining 120 state parks and managing the 2.2 million acres of state forest land. Topics included horizontal drilling adjacent to state parks and forest land; $200 million Enhance Penn’s Woods initiative; dirt and gravel road projects in new transportation funding law; Heritage Parks funding; timber harvest revenue projections; vendors in state parks; pest management being addressed by DCNR; Rail-to-Trail connectors and delays; land trusts and preservation; and an upgrade of the Pennsylvania Natural Diversity Inventory.
Gaming Control Board
During a budget hearing with Gaming Control Board Chairman William Ryan, members of the Senate Appropriations Committee discussed the decline in gaming revenue so far this year. They also addressed the effect of competition from other states; grants for local law enforcement agencies; the effect of table games on slots revenue; regulation and expected revenue from small games of chance expansion; and crime and the use of State Police in casinos.
Click here to see my discussion with Chairman Ryan regarding the status of the application for a harness racing facility in Lawrence County and Senate Bill 1188, my bill to improve and streamline regulation of the horse racing industry.
Liquor Control Board
Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee questioned Liquor Control Board Chairman Joe Brion on several issues, including ways to improve the application process for small games of chance; preventing drunk driving; Sunday liquor sales; preventing point of sale security breaches; the number of current state liquor stores that are not profitable; marketing restrictions and advertising costs; and efforts to promote Pennsylvania wineries and distilleries.
Department of Health
Secretary of Health Michael Wolf and the Appropriations Committee discussed the department’s efforts to expand quality care in rural regions and underserved areas; the effect of cuts to community health centers; incorporating telemedicine in rural areas; and efforts to improve newborn screening. Click here to see my discussion with Secretary Wolf regarding the complications caused by the closure of the Beaver County Health Center.
Thursday, February 20
Department of Corrections/Probation and Parole
Corrections Secretary John Wetzel discussed trends in the state prison population; efforts to reduce recidivism; parole violations; mental health issues related to prisoners; outsourcing of food service for prisons; victims’ testimony at parole hearings; potential prison closures and capital improvement projects; expungement of criminal records; courts and services for veterans; inmate pay scales; supervision of sex offenders; abuses of the Right to Know Law by inmates; and gang activity in prisons.
State System of Higher Education
State System of Higher Education Chancellor Frank Brogan and the president of Slippery Rock University discussed efforts to address declining enrollment. Other topics included solutions to provide additional flexibility for universities; matching curriculum to the needs of Pennsylvania employers; distance learning programs; the need for remedial education; an update of strategic long-term plans; and how the Pennsylvania’s funding model compares to other states.
Pennsylvania Emergency Management Director Glenn Cannon and State Fire Commissioner Ed Mann answer questions on recent emergencies and statewide planning. Topics included recruitment and retention of emergency responders; the Chevron site accident in Greene County and well site safety; legislation regarding distribution of 911 surcharge funds; the Volunteer Fire Company and Volunteer Ambulance Service Grant Program; response to downed power lines after major storms; PEMA headquarters construction update; mandatory training requirements for Pennsylvania firefighters; hazardous materials mitigation in the budget; and the need to establish a statewide disaster assistance program.