A report on the Legislative Session Week of February 24, 2014
Special Report: 2014-15 Budget Hearings
The Senate Appropriations Committee, which I serve on, held its third 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 24 through February 27.
This special edition of Harrisburg Happenings provides day-by-day highlights from those hearings. Be sure to check out the numerous video links in this newsletter featuring my discussions with cabinet officials representing several departments and agencies. Photos, audio and video from the hearings are available at www.pasenategop.com.
Monday, February 24
Department of Public Welfare
Secretary of Public Welfare Beverly Mackereth discussed health care coverage for low-income Pennsylvanians and the governor’s Healthy Pennsylvania plan. Other topics of discussion included the Human Service Development Block Grant Program; the positive impact of child protection law improvements; adult protective services; additional staffing needs; home- and community-based care services; accessibility of services for disabled individuals; utilization of funding for programs for individuals with intellectual disabilities; funding child advocacy centers; reducing waste and abuse; exploring ways to incentivize work; services for veterans; and funding for hospitals in rural communities. Click here to watch Secretary Mackereth answer my questions about the state’s rate scale for long term care service providers in the region including Beaver County.
Department of Community and Economic Development
Department of Community and Economic Development Secretary Alan Walker discussed the need to leverage private dollars to supplement tourism promotion and boosting Pennsylvania exports, as well as workforce development; progress of the cracker plant project in Beaver County; marketing to attract businesses; Innovate in PA Program status; job market outlook for 2014; natural gas industry job creation; energy-independent companies; building more industrial parks; boosting veterans procurement initiative numbers; Partnerships for Regional Economic Performance and Ben Franklin Partnerships; helping veterans hire veterans, and older adults; future of downtown Main Street/Elm Street programs; historic rehabilitation; the need to update Act 47; film tax credit; base Realignment and Closure Commission; and public-private redevelopment of state owned property. Click here to watch Secretary Walker respond to my request for an update on the “cracker” plant proposed for Beaver County and tourism efforts in Pennsylvania.
PHEAA CEO James Preston discussed the agency’s efforts to help students cope with the rising cost of a college education. Other topics of discussion included factors the agency uses to consider loan and grant eligibility; assistance for distance learning students; debt education tools for students; preventing data breaches; programs designed to assist veterans; and certificate programs.
Tuesday, February 25
The committee questioned the presidents of Penn State University, Temple University and Lincoln University and the chancellor of University of Pittsburgh about the effect of spending restraints and their efforts to control costs in lean budget years. Other topics covered were Penn State Extension funding; in-state tuition at Penn State Law School; Temple’s “Fly in 4” grant program; jobs going unfilled by Pennsylvania graduates; cutting male sports to comply with Title IX requirements; allowing universities to authorize charter schools; graduation rates at branch campuses; drop in student enrollment in state system; efforts being taken to reduce costs; Penn State’s involvement in state pension system; size of boards of trustees; retaining medical school graduates in Pennsylvania; percentage of students graduating in four years; tuition rates for out-of-state students; veterans outreach efforts; and the need to make higher education spending a priority.
Department of Labor and Industry
Labor Secretary Julia Hearthway was asked about the fiscal health of the Unemployment Compensation (UC) Trust Fund and the impact of Act 60 reforms. Other topics included legislation to change overtime and UC eligibility calculation; UC and seasonal employment; CareerLink and disabled workers; JobGateway; the Strategic Early Warning Network; jobs initiatives for veterans; the State Workers’ Insurance Fund and firefighter insurance; the sharing of information between county assistance and Labor and Industry info; hiking the minimum wage; wage reimbursement program during training; Early Reach and Single Point of Contact programs; workforce training programs; misclassification of employees for workers comp, taxes; Pennsylvania labor outlook; and federal cuts for UC service centers.
Click here to watch Secretary Hearthway answer my question about the Department’s working relationship with the Strategic Early Warning Network to assist manufacturers and avoid layoffs.
Department of Agriculture
As Chairman of the Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs, I had a number of questions for Secretary of Agriculture George Greig during the Senate Appropriations Committee budget hearing on the Department of Agriculture. Click here to watch our discussion which included an update on the development of agriculture resource centers; licensing and registration fees; the PA Preferred program; and the economic impact of livestock shows in Pennsylvania.
Other topics discussed at the hearing included ride inspections at amusement parks; restaurant inspections; demographics of farming families; impact of Marcellus Shale drilling on agriculture; state support for the State Food Purchase Program; and dog licenses and regulation of kennels.
Wednesday, February 26
Pennsylvania State Police/Homeland Security
State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan discussed trooper cadet training classes and the state police complement; the ongoing war on drugs and the increase in heroin usage; a pilot vehicle towing/recovery program; the ongoing implementation of the statewide radio system; school safety issues; mandatory retirement issues and the impact of pension reform on the state police; the Overdose Rapid Response Task Force; state police coverage of areas without local police departments; DNA testing capacities and backlog; trooper presence in casinos; a proposed grant program for local training efforts; the vehicles used by the state police; background checks for gun purchases; enforcement of laws pertaining to office betting pools; and legalization of marijuana.
Click here to watch State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan provide an update on a pilot vehicle towing/recovery program in the western part of the state including Beaver, Lawrence and Butler counties, a proposed grant program for local training efforts; and the vehicles used by the state police.
Department of Banking and Securities
Secretary of Banking and Securities Glenn E. Moyer provided an update on the merger of the Department of Banking and Pennsylvania Securities Commission. Other issues discussed during the budget hearing included proposed increases in licensing and examining fees; mortgage issues; Department oversight of bank fraud investigations; vitality of Pennsylvania’s banks; elder abuse; payday lending; reducing the timeframe for holding unclaimed property; and flood insurance issues. Click here to watch Secretary Moyer respond to my questions about a proposed reduction in the timeframe for holding unclaimed property and flood insurance issues.
Department of Education
Acting Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq was asked about K-12 education funding in the proposed budget, as well as unused Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit funds; intermediate Unit contracts and students; Ready to Succeed scholarship formation and implementation; hybrid learning programs; Ready to Learn Block grant initiatives; impact of Special Education Funding Commission recommendations; PlanCon backlog of construction projects; school district subsidies in the proposed budget; support for growing school districts; school district administrative staffing; snow days and making the 180-day school requirement; school funding formula; anti-bullying initiatives; transportation in rural areas; Safe School grant distribution; cuts in school library funding; early intervention non-recurring costs line item; the importance of families in education; Pennsylvania Common Core implementation; community Colleges; the 3.5 percent increase in K-12 funding; effect of rising pension costs on school funding; and STEM education.
Since we’ve had the large number of snow days this winter, I asked Acting Secretary Dumaresq what options are being considered for school districts to meet the state mandated 180 days of instruction and the potential for virtual classrooms. Click here to see her response.
Thursday, February 27
Senators told members of the PUC that they have been inundated by calls from consumers who have seen their electric bills skyrocket in recent weeks because of variable rates offered by alternative electricity suppliers. Questioning also focused on how consumers can file complaints about high electric bills; educating consumers about alternative pricing; pipeline safety efforts in Pennsylvania – particularly with the growth in the gas industry; ensuring the safety and reliability of power service; and a growth in the number of alternative cab services.
Click here for video of my questioning the Public Utility Commission about electric service reliability during inclement weather and the Commission’s oversight of utilities in that aspect, as well as the PA One Call coverage of gas lines.
Department of Aging
During the budget hearing with the Department of Aging’s hearing, Senators asked about a wide range of programs and services related to senior citizens including strategies to address Alzheimer’s; an update on the Apprise program which provides free health insurance counseling to help older Pennsylvanians with Medicare; the high cost of long-term care and efforts to keep seniors in their homes; the effectiveness of the Family Caregiver Support Program; growing Lottery resources; and the role that senior centers play in providing services. Click here for Secretary Duke’s response to my questions about state support for senior community centers.
Department of Transportation
PENNDOT Secretary Barry Schoch discussed the importance of the recent transportation funding package, the timetable for repairs and the impact that it will have on Pennsylvania’s infrastructure. Other topics of discussion included reducing traffic congestion; salt shortages in municipalities; repairing road damage due to winter weather; salt run-off into streams; the economic impact of rail; traffic signal upgrades; regional cooperation; investments in passenger rail; and the status of federal highway funding.
Click here to see Secretary Schoch’s response to my questions regarding shortages of road salt experienced by municipalities and resulting supply and distribution issues.