Budget Hearings Summary – 2015

Senate Appropriations Committee
Budget Hearings
FY 2015-2016


Budget Summaries (includes Video/Audio)


Aging

Tuesday, Mar. 24

Members of the Appropriations Committee quizzed Acting Secretary of Aging Teresa Osborne on programs for Pennsylvania’s senior citizens and several other issues including:

  • The reliance on projected increases in lottery sales to support programs.
  • The Governor’s proposed sales tax expansion to include nursing home care.
  • The extension of the moratorium on Social Security COLAs on PACE/PACENET income limits.
  • The need to promote aging in place.
  • The loss of senior centers across the state.
  • State support for senior centers.
  • Demographic trends and pressures on funding.
  • Funding of community care.
  • Proliferation in crimes against the elderly.
  • The effect of cost containment efforts.
  • Inequities caused by “hold harmless” funding to counties.
  • Implementation of long-term care programs.
  • Unionization of home health care workers.

Agriculture

Tuesday, Mar. 31

Acting Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding fielded questions from members of the Appropriations Committee on a number of topics related to agriculture in Pennsylvania including:

  • Inequity in tax breaks for farmland, particularly in light of the array of tax increases proposed by Governor Wolf.
  • Support for the horse racing industry in Pennsylvania.
  • A proposed “Green Agriculture” initiative.
  • Funding for Penn State’s agriculture programs and the University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary school.
  • The impact of regulations on church fundraising activities.
  • State support for fairs and the potential for those events to be taxed under the Governor’s proposed sales tax expansion.
  • Dog licensing and dog law enforcement.
  • Objections by the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau to the Governor’s temporary and limited property tax reduction proposal.
  • Elimination by the Governor of funding for a number of programs in the Agriculture budget.
  • Resource Enhancement and Protection (REAP) tax credits to assist farmers.
  • High school agriculture science programs.
  • The PA Preferred program and promotion of Pennsylvania-grown products.
  • Farmland preservation efforts.

Attorney General

Tuesday, Mar. 17

Attorney General Kathleen Kane outlined her office’s activities and funding needs. Committee members focused on the following topics:

  • Human trafficking and missing children.
  • An update on the Child Predator Interceptor Unit.
  • An outline of drug prevention efforts, including enforcement.
  • The impact of the Mobile Street Crimes Unit.
  • Plans for boosting the number of Medicaid fraud investigators.
  • Efforts to combat Pennsylvania’s heroin epidemic.
  • Defense of local gun ordinance preemption and referral to the Office of General Counsel.
  • Updated staffing levels and vacancies in the office.
  • Reimbursements to counties for full-time district attorneys.
  • The need to update the Older Adult Protective Services Act to target financial fraud against older Pennsylvanians.
  • The problem of drug gangs from Mexico operating in Pennsylvania.
  • The need to provide documentation of outside legal counsel.
  • The role of the office in defending the Administration in the case of Right to Know Office director.
  • Reciprocity with neighboring states regarding licenses to carry firearms.
  • Consumer complaints about misleading gas royalty payments.
  • How to legally prevent drillers from passing on to landowners the proposed Marcellus Shale tax increase.
  • The legality of the governor’s death penalty moratorium.
  • Gaming enforcement with the Pennsylvania State Police.
  • The budget impact of requests for more staffing.
  • Disbursement of the mortgage fraud settlement with Standard & Poor’s.

Auditor General

Tuesday, Mar. 17

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale repeatedly stressed the need for public pension reform and the impact that the costs are having on Pennsylvania’s municipalities. Other topics discussed during the hearing included:

  • Personnel, union contract and IT issues.
  • Board of Claims cost increases.
  • The frequency of state audits for public school districts and charter schools and the problems found during those audits.
  • Previous finds of fraud, waste and abuse in the Department of Public Welfare (now known as the Department of Human Services).
  • Capital expenditures by school districts and prevailing wage.
  • Costs incurred for state vehicles.
  • Efforts to reform the Delaware River Port Authority.
  • Active versus passive investment strategies.
  • Unencumbered fund balances in state agencies.
  • The need for accountability measures for Department of Community and Economic Development programs.

Banking & Securities

Monday, Mar. 30

Acting Secretary of Banking & Securities Robin Wiessmann fielded questions from members of the Appropriations Committee on a number of topics related to the banking industry in Pennsylvania including:

  • Issues facing community banks.
  • Mortgage servicing.
  • Bank shares tax.
  • The influence of global banking trends on Pennsylvania’s banks.
  • Financial scams.
  • Electronic transactions and cybersecurity.
  • The impact of the Governor’s proposed sales tax expansion on the securities industry and investment services.
  • Payday lending operations.
  • Regulations on loan origination.
  • Passive versus active investment strategies for pension funds.

Community & Economic Development

Thursday, Mar. 26

Committee members questioned Dennis Davin, Acting Secretary of the Department of Community and Economic Development

  • The need for a proactive approach to help companies expand, stay or relocate in Pennsylvania.
  • Ensuring accountability when providing grants to the private sector to create jobs.
  • Concerns about the Governor’s proposal to expand the sales tax and how that will impact small businesses.
  • The impact of the film industry in Pennsylvania and the film tax credit.
  • Concerns about the Governor’s proposal to implement combined reporting and how it would affect companies because of a lack of predictability.
  • The importance of Main Street and Elm Street programs to economic development.
  • How the City Revitalization and improvement Zone (CRIZ) Program has improved community development.
  • Concerns that the Governor’s plan to increase the tax that small businesses pay by 20 percent will stifle job-create and economic development.
  • Concerns about achieving sustainability in budgeting and the impact that imposing additional taxes will have on programs and services.
  • Focusing more resources on tourism marketing and promotion.
  • Efforts to attract more skilled workers and provide job training.
  • The financial distress that many third-class cities are now under.

 

Community Colleges

Thursday, Mar. 19

Questions about state funding for community colleges from members of the Appropriations Committee were fielded by a panel consisting of Elizabeth Bolden, president of the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges, Nick Neupauer, chairman of the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges, and Ann Bieber, president of Lehigh Carbon Community College. Topics discussed during the hearing included:

  • Partnerships with State System of Higher Education schools.
  • Workforce development programs.
  • State support as a ratio of community colleges’ total funding.
  • Capital funding.
  • Local sponsorships.
  • Affordability and availability of training programs for EMS and firefighters.
  • The popularity of online courses.
  • Dual enrollment.
  • Retirement plan options for staff and faculty.
  • Trends in remedial/developmental education.
  • The governor’s proposal to tax textbooks and student fees.

Conservation & Natural Resources

Wednesday, Apr. 1

Acting DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn answered questions about the benefits and impacts of natural gas drilling on public lands. Other topics of discussion included:

  • The legality and impact of the governor’s moratorium on new natural gas leases in state forests and parks.
  • Increasing numbers of visitors to state parks.
  • A reduction in revenue generated by timber sales.
  • Modernizing the PNDI Environmental Review Tool.
  • Proposed funding cuts for Heritage Parks.
  • Funding for high-hazard dams.
  • The impact of additional funding dedicated to dirt and gravel roads.
  • A proposed increase in the Realty Transfer Tax.
  • Avoiding using state parks and forests as political pawns in the event of a prolonged budget debate.
  • Uses of Oil and Gas Lease Fund revenues.
  • Capital projects on public land.
  • Areas available for the use of alternative energy.
  • The total value of energy resources on state land.
  • Difficulties in projecting severance tax revenue.

Corrections & Probation & Parole

Wednesday, Mar. 25

Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee questioned Acting Corrections Secretary John Wetzel and John Tuttle, Acting Chair of the PA Board of Probation and Parole about several issues relating to Pennsylvania’s prison population including:

  • The rising costs associated with incarcerating inmates and high rates of recidivism among prisoners./li>
  • Efforts to provide job-training to inmates so that they can find employment when then are released./li>
  • Enlisting the help of non-profits in providing services to prisoners to help them with re-entry.
  • Medical care provided to inmates, particularly mental health services for inmates who are leaving prison.
  • Providing education and vocational education to prisoners to improve their skills.
  • Converting prisons from coal to natural gas to save costs.
  • The role that mental health courts can play in lowering prison populations and costs.
  • The high cost of benefits, including pensions, for employees compared to the private sector.
  • Significant caseloads for county probation officers.
  • Providing support and mentoring to children of incarcerated inmates.
  • Overtime costs and the need to fill vacant prison guard positions to reduce those expenses.
  • Managing non-violent offenders in the community while not compromising public safety.
  • Consolidating the Department of Corrections and the Board of Probation and Parole to improve services to those who are incarcerated.

Drug & Alcohol Programs

Wednesday, Mar. 18

Members questioned Pennsylvania Secretary of Drug and Alcohol Programs Gary Tennis regarding programs and allocation of funding to combat the state’s heroin epidemic. Other topics of discussion included:

  • Current and future personnel costs and staffing needs.
  • The department’s position on the legalization of medical cannabis.
  • Measures to address prescription drug abuse.
  • Use of funds for drug and alcohol abuse education.
  • Coordination with law enforcement to distribute overdose prevention drugs.
  • The growth in compulsive gambling disorders.
  • Continuing treatment of overdose survivors.

Education

Monday, Mar. 30

Committee members told Acting Education Secretary Pedro Rivera about the need to change the public school retiree pension system to reduce skyrocketing costs that are diverting funds away from the classroom. Other topics included:

  • Career and technical education funding
  • Early warning system for identifying students at risk of dropping out.
  • The constitutionality of the Governor’s proposed property tax reduction plan.
  • The negative effects of the “hold harmless” clause which prevents state aid from being diverted to districts with rising enrollment.
  • The growing responsibilities of school nurses.
  • The need to address wages and benefits driving increased education costs.
  • The savings to be realized by eliminating prevailing wage mandates on school construction projects.
  • Spending on pre-kindergarten education programs.
  • Schools being required to teach to the state-mandated tests.
  • Concerns that the Governor’s proposed property tax reductions are not permanent.
  • The formula for proposed cyber education funding.
  • The lack of additional money for PlanCon school construction funding.
  • Disparities in state funding from district to district, and disparities in proposed property tax reductions.
  • The burden of requiring school districts to prepare a report by May 15 on budgeting proposed new state funding.
  • The need to reform the state basic education funding formula.
  • Removing pension spending from the education general fund budget gives a misleading view of actual education funding.
  • Funding and effectiveness of adult literacy programs.

Environmental Protection

Wednesday, Mar. 25

Acting DEP Secretary John Quigley was questioned about his request to fund 50 new inspectors, mostly for unconventional wells. Other topics discussed included:

  • The need to provide the legislature with new regulations as soon as drafted and additional public hearings when revised.
  • The origins and constitutionality of the proposed natural gas severance tax.
  • The proposed cap on the local share of the Act 13 impact fee.
  • The ability of the state to prohibit drillers from passing on severance tax to leaseholders.
  • Pennsylvania’s share of funding the Delaware River Basin Commission.
  • Locations and construction of natural gas pipelines.
  • Reductions in the Hazardous Site Cleanup Fund.
  • The fate of coal-fired power plants in Pennsylvania.
  • The Governor’s alternative energy tax proposal funded by a portion of severance tax and bond.
  • Plan for reducing delays in issuing DEP permits.
  • The need for better time management with existing inspectors.
  • A breakdown of unionized workers and lawyers in DEP.
  • Projections for oil and gas production for the next several years.
  • The number of windmills in Pennsylvania and energy produced.
  • An update on tire pile cleanup totals.
  • Proposed stricter regulations of riparian buffers and the effect on much-needed road and bridge projects.
  • Grants for endangered species studies in watersheds.
  • An update on the effectiveness of alternative energy incentive grants.
  • Collaboration between DEP and the Public Utility Commission.
  • Borrowing money for solar and wind projects.
  • Unfunded mandates placed on municipal authorities for Chesapeake Bay cleanup.
  • DEP working with PEMA over concerns about transportation of oil by rail.
  • The need to shore up accountability before offering more alternative energy subsidies.
  • Concerns over the cross-purposes of taxing one energy producer to subsidize another.
  • The apparent unsustainability of proposed new spending to be financed by a severance tax.

Gaming Control Board

Thursday, Mar. 19

Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board Chairman William Ryan answered questions regarding the health of the gaming industry and potential avenues to increase gaming revenue. Other topics of discussion included:

  • The impact of recent Atlantic City casino closures on Pennsylvania’s gaming industry.
  • How the industry would be affected by the tax increases in the governor’s budget proposal.
  • The potential approval of new kinds of table games and online gaming.
  • The effect of casinos on the horse racing industry.
  • Competition from neighboring states that have legalized casino gambling.
  • Measures to prevent underage and prohibited individuals from playing in casinos.
  • Recent suggestions by casino owners to enact 24-hour alcohol laws at gaming facilities.
  • State Police presence in casinos and the effect on crime.
  • Saturation in the Philadelphia market.

General Services

Monday, Mar. 16

Questioning regarding the proposed budget for the Department of General Services focused on how to achieve cost savings, ensure best costs and maximize the use of state resources.  Specific topics included:

  • Cost-savings achieved through strategic sourcing of contracts.
  • How rapidly changing markets can affect requests for proposals.
  • Statistics on the amount of unused office space and the cost to the state.
  • Locating state offices in downtown locations to encourage economic development.
  • The status of the sale of SCI Greensburg.
  • The importance of fair and transparent purchasing.
  • Giving preference to PA-owned companies when contracting for services.
  • The importance of keeping options open leases for liquor stores.

Governor’s Office/Governor’s Budget Office/Executive Offices

Monday, Mar. 16

The Senate Appropriations Committee opened its three-week series of hearings on the Governor’s proposed 2015-16 budget with a discussion of the Governor’s Budget Office/Executive Offices/Office of the Governor with Budget Secretary Randy Albright. Issues discussed during the hearing included:

  • Pennsylvania’s projected revenue surplus for the current fiscal year and the Commonwealth’s current economic climate.
  • The Administration’s proposed spending increase and the movement of PSERS funding from the General Fund to a separate restricted account.
  • The potential inequity of the Governor’s proposal to increase state income and sales taxes for a reduction of property taxes at the local level.
  • The impact of the Governor’s proposed tax increases on Pennsylvania’s economy.
  • Contract negotiations with the state’s labor unions and the costs of pensions and benefits.
  • The impact of the Governor’s tax increases on small businesses.
  • The proposed severance tax and the impact on lease holders.
  • Parallels between Governor Wolf’s proposed tax increases and those by Governor Casey in 1991.
  • Productivity and accountability in state government operations.
  • Elimination of prevailing wage mandates on school districts.
  • Legal issues related to imposing combined reporting by business.
  • Cost containment efforts by local school districts.
  • Funding for the state’s film tax credit program.
  • Costs of intermediate units.
  • State funding per student and wealth redistribution for education funding.
  • The Governor’s proposal to float a pension obligation bond that would be repaid by liquor store revenues.

 

Health

Monday, Mar. 23

Acting Health Secretary Karen Murphy and Physician General Rachel Levine answered questions from committee members including:

  • Implementation of the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program.
  • Status of the number of tanning facilities who have registered under the state’s new law.
  • Rationale for numerous cuts in programs and services, including biotechnology initiatives.
  • The growing heroin epidemic and how the state can attack this health threat.
  • Efforts to improve prevention and education for Lyme Disease and the status of a task force established by the Legislature to address those issues.
  • The need to  attract and retain primary care physicians.
  • The rising use of emergency care facilities and their impact on health care delivery.
  • How to determine if there are health issues in areas around Marcellus Shale well site.
  • Challenges that Emergency Medical Services are having with respect to funding.

Historical & Museum Commission

Tuesday, Mar. 31

Senators asked James Vaughn, Executive Director of the PA Historical and Museum Commission about his agency’s budget and mission, including:

  • The use of public-private partnerships and volunteers in operating historical sites.
  • Increased fees and how it affects the number of visits.
  • The trend in attendance at historical sites and museums.
  • How important cultural and historical sites are to tourism.
  • Concerns about expanding the sales tax to cover admissions to facilities and the impact it would have on the number of visitors.

Human Services

Thursday, Mar. 26

 

Ted Dallas, Acting Secretary of Human Services took questions from senators on a number of programs and services that his agency provides, including:

  • Expanding the Human Services Development Fund and providing greater accountability in tracking block grants.
  • The lack of psychiatrists in state hospitals and the fact that patients are not receiving care.
  • A psychiatric demonstration project that has shown great success but is not being used in Pennsylvania.
  • Concerns about the hiring of a New York-based company to oversee labor relations with direct care workers involved in home- and community-based services.
  • Combatting the growing heroin epidemic and providing first responders with Narcan to reverse overdoses.
  • Training of those who are administering the new child protection laws.
  • Outreach services to homeless veterans and the use of veterans courts to address issues.
  • Strengthening the integrity of the public assistance program to combat fraud and abuse.
  • Changes that have been made to the way community group home providers are being reimbursed.
  • The long delay in processing child abuse clearance checks.
  • The waiting list in many group homes and the need to more adequately fund them.
  • Funding for autism and the need to increase the appropriation to handle the growing number of cases.
  • Attempts to unionize direct care workers and the cost of the benefit package for employees.
  • Spending for programs and services for at-risk children.
  • Providing care to adult children who have mental illness.
  • Concerns about achieving sustainability in budgeting and the impact that imposing additional taxes will have on programs and services.

Independent Fiscal Office

Monday, Mar. 16

IFO Director Matthew Knittel briefed the committee on the economic outlook for the coming fiscal year as well as debt levels and general revenue trends. Committee members focused on the following topics:

  • The need for conservative revenue estimates.
  • How to estimate the effect of tax increases on revenue and economic growth.
  • The effective rate of PIT and Sales taxes vs. those of surrounding states.
  • Proposed changes in corporate income tax structure.
  • Property tax relief and pension relief funds being used for general fund expenses.
  • The effect of elderly population growth effect on state budgets.
  • Concerns about Pennsylvania’s long-term debt going forward.
  • The difficulty in calculating and administering a sales tax rate of 6.6 percent.
  • The need to calculate the total tax and fee burden on Marcellus Shale development.
  • Projected increase in school property taxes under the Governor’s plan, without elimination.
  • Pension plans’ rate of return and investment growth sectors.
  • Comparing total local and state tax burden in Pennsylvania to other states.
  • The difficultly in comparing states in job growth and severance taxes.
  • The need to measure effectiveness of tax credits.
  • The estimated revenue that would be generated by a state personal income tax on public pensions.
  • Savings realized by school districts by eliminating prevailing wage rates for construction projects.
  • Pension management fees.
  • Measuring structural deficits, Senate Bill 76 and district debt, and the school retiree pension crisis.
  • Pulling money out of economy to subsidize economic development through borrowing.
  • The danger in balancing the budget by moving expenditures.

Insurance

Wednesday, Apr. 1

Acting Insurance Commissioner Teresa Miller answered questions regarding the effect of the federal health care law, as well as other topics including:

  • The cost of healthcare exchanges under Obamacare.
  • Consolidation of healthcare insurers and the effect on consumers.
  • Federal concerns regarding minimum essential coverage under CHIP.
  • The consent decree between Highmark and UPMC.
  • Projected cost savings for employers in terms of Worker’s Compensation.
  • Unfunded liability for MCARE and the number of malpractice claims in Pennsylvania.
  • Companies declining to sell long-term care insurance

Judiciary

Wednesday, Mar. 18

The committee discussed the budget requests of the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania with a panel including Supreme Court justices Michael Eakin, Max Baer and Correale Stevens. Topics covered included:

  • Proposed level funding for the system in 2015-16.
  • The results of the system’s cost-cutting efforts.
  • The problem of pension contributions, medical benefits and COLAS driving up costs.
  • The success of problem-solving courts across Pennsylvania.
  • Increased revenue to courts system through the collection of fines.
  • Effects of reducing the number of local magistrates.
  • Spending on summer interns.
  • The possibility of tying the number of local judges to population changes.
  • The cost of incarceration versus house arrest and recidivism rates.
  • The number of support staff in the system.
  • Calculating whether fines are keeping up with court costs.
  • The cost of COLAS that don’t correspond to inflation and posting complete salary information online.
  • The Judiciary’s compliance with the Right to Know Act.
  • Justices paying more for health care costs and eliminating automatic COLAs for judicial branches.
  • The backlog of cases before the Judicial Conduct Board.
  • Request for funds to expand court technology.
  • The need for public officials to sacrifice financially during difficult budgetary times.
  • The elimination of Philadelphia Traffic Court.
  • The need to promote early staff retirements to control court pension costs.

Labor & Industry

Monday, Mar. 30

Kathy Manderino, Acting Secretary of the Department of Labor and Industry, answered questions on a number of issues related to jobs and workers, including:

  • Staff complement and pension-related costs for the department.
  • The need to increase vocational rehabilitation funding to get more people into the workforce.
  • The rationale for using an out-of-state company for labor negotiations.
  • Wage pressure if the minimum wage is increased.
  • A crisis in finding skilled labor, particularly for manufacturing jobs.
  • Workers’ compensation fraud.
  • The time frame for transferring information for PA residents who work out of state.
  • Increased funding for assisted technology, which helps those with disabilities.
  • Providing funds and assistance for the Centers for Independent Living.
  • How the proposed increase in the minimum wage would affect small businesses.
  • Sole proprietors who pay into unemployment compensation but cannot receive benefits.
  • Encouraging young people to obtain training in trades.
  • Cost-savings realized by a program that prevents prisoners from receiving unemployment benefits.
  • The importance of New Choices/New Options in helping workers who have been out of the workforce for a long time to find employment.
  • Vocational training for inmates before their re-entry.
  • The status of the State Workers Insurance Fund and its importance to state businesses.
  • How effective the U.C. Amnesty Program has been in recovering costs.

Liquor Control Board

Wednesday, Mar. 25

Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board Chairman Tim Holden and board members fielded questions regarding various liquor privatization and modernization proposals.

Other topics of discussion included:

  • The decision to allow beer distributors to sell 12-packs to customers.
  • An update on tavern gaming licenses.
  • The potential to generate additional revenue if Sunday sales are expanded.
  • Additional personnel costs if Sunday sales are expanded.
  • The burden on consumers if a sales tax increase is enacted.
  • Legislation to allow 24-hour alcohol sales at casinos.
  • Current and projected revenues generated by state liquor sales.
  • Operational costs, pricing and mark-ups.
  • The gift ban for board members.
  • Allowing the direct shipment of wine and beer to out-of-state customers.
  • Efforts to prevent underage drinking and drunk driving.
  • The increase in sales at new and rebranded state liquor stores.
  • Investments in alcohol education.
  • Securitization of liquor store receipts.

Military & Veterans Affairs

Wednesday, Apr. 1

Acting Adjutant General (Maj. Gen.) James Joseph discussed a number of issues pertaining to the Pennsylvania National Guard, the Pennsylvania Air National Guard and services provided to veterans by the Commonwealth. Specific issues discussed during the hearing included:

  • The number of National Guard members deployed.
  • Trends in recruitment and retention.
  • Information technology matters.
  • Funding for the education of veterans’ children.
  • Waiting lists for state veterans’ homes.
  • Veterans service outreach efforts.
  • Veterans Trust Fund donations and expenditures.
  • Health care coverage for veterans under Medicaid expansion.
  • A court ruling changing the definition of a paralyzed veteran.
  • Matching veterans with job openings.
  • Partnerships with the private sector to serve veterans.
  • Terrorist threats against service members.
  • Federal funding for veterans’ services.
  • The success of county veterans’ courts.
  • Dementia and Alzheimer ’s disease issues among veterans.
  • Delays in processing Disabled Veterans Real Estate Tax Exemption program applications.
  • Increases in personnel costs caused by pensions.
  • Privatization of some services.
  • Creation of a separate Department of Veterans’ Services.
  • Military advocacy of early childhood education.
  • Options for long-term care.

PASSHE (PA State System of Higher Education)

Thursday, Mar. 19

Chancellor Frank Brogan and representatives of several schools in the State System of Higher Education discussed declining enrollment and its effect on tuition. Other questions discussed during the hearing included:

  • Programs and approaches to help non-traditional students.
  • The need for additional job training and technical programs.
  • Trends in the number of students requiring remedial education.
  • Attracting out-of-state students and international students.
  • Changes in graduation rates.
  • Articulation agreements with community colleges.
  • Campus safety issues.
  • Tuition reimbursement and other programs for members of the military.
  • Encouraging civic involvement in universities and host communities.
  • Grant assistance for low- and middle-income students.
  • Online education.

PEMA

Wednesday, Apr. 1

PEMA Director Richard Flinn and State Fire Marshal Timothy Solobay briefed members of the Senate Appropriations Committee on emergency operations and services, including:

  • Legislation to implement the updated statewide 911 system, and how fees will be assessed.
  • Concerns about the statewide radio system.
  • The dwindling number of volunteer firefighters and emergency services workers.
  • A status report on the new PEMA building, including costs involved in its construction.
  • Recruitment and retention of volunteer fire fighters and the savings they provide to communities.
  • Efforts to attract new volunteers, including tuition credits, loans and training.
  • PEMA’s working relationship with the PA State Police.
  • Training for responding to incidents involving Marcellus Shale.
  • Responding to motorists who are stranded on highways for long amounts of time due to road condition.
  • Concerns about trains carrying large amounts of crude oil through communities and whether there is notification.
  • Merging fire companies to save costs and prevent duplication.
  • Funding issues faced by county 911 centers and the need to resolve challenges they are facing.
  • The value of the Local Emergency Relief line item.
  • Hazard mitigation efforts to prevent reoccurrence of flooding.
  • State assistance for volunteer recruitment and retention efforts.
  • Increased workers comp insurance rates for firefighters.
  • Pipeline emergency response training.
  • Legislation updating Title 35.
  • The authority of the 911 advisory board.
  • Why the Administration’s PEMA budget request is higher than what PEMA requested.

Public Utility Commission

Monday, Mar. 23

Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission Chairman Robert Powelson and commissioners fielded questions regarding pipeline safety, as well as transparency and cooperation with local municipalities. Other topics of discussion included:

  • The need for infrastructure upgrades.
  • Regulation of private transportation services like Uber and Lyft.
  • The potential effect of combined reporting requirements on utility companies and customers.
  • Alternative Portfolio Standards for renewable energy sources and compliance with EPA restrictions.
  • The potential impact of an additional severance tax on the natural gas industry and the effect on leaseholders.
  • Expansion of natural gas service to underserved areas.
  • Preventing and responding to utility outages.
  • Regulation of household goods carriers.
  • The use of anaerobic digesters and other best management practices on farms.
  • Changing enforcement responsibilities for the PA One Call system from the Department of Labor and Industry to the PUC.
  • The effect of power plant closures in western Pennsylvania.
  • The number of union vs. non-union employees.

Revenue/Lottery

Tuesday, Mar. 31

 

Acting Secretary Eileen McNulty was questioned about the Administration’s unprecedented tax hikes and the impact on the Pennsylvania economy. Topics included:

  • Confusion over a possible sales tax on lobbying.
  • Services covered by the proposed sales tax on financial planners.
  • Re-release of the bulletin on bank shares tax.
  • Ability to nullify existing contracts to prevent drillers from passing a severance tax onto property owners.
  • Disparities in property tax reductions under the Governor’s plan.
  • The failure of the Governor’s school property tax plan to prevent property taxes from going back up.
  • Unrealistic projections for severance tax revenue.
  • The Governor’s plan to cap natural gas impact fee funding and the effect on communities.
  • Strategy for meeting projections for lottery revenue increases.
  • The possible need to review criteria for Property Tax/Rent Rebate regarding surviving spouses over 50 and non-citizens.
  • The likelihood that retailers will round up the proposed 6.6 percent sales tax to 7 percent.
  • The complexity and legal challenges with implementing combined-reporting requirements on businesses.
  • The proposed sales tax on amusement park admissions and impact on local amusement taxes.
  • The Administration’s plan to implement a whole new regime of taxation and the ability to administer with current staffing.
  • The burden of adding $9 billion in new costs on the Pennsylvania economy under the Governor’s plan and the effect on economic growth.

SERS/PSERS

Monday, Mar. 23

Officials of the two state public pension funds, the State Employees’ Retirement System (SERS) and the Public School Employees’ Retirement System (PSERS), discussed their systems’ unfunded liabilities. Other topics committee members explored were:

  • Whether the 7.5 percent expected rate of return is too optimistic.
  • The impact of the Governor’s plan to issue a bond to help fund the plans.
  • The possible effect of moving to a passive-management system.
  • How system fund managers and boards make investment decisions.
  • Termination of poorly performing fund managers.
  • Participation in the SERS Deferred Compensation program.
  • The effect of the imbalance between active and retired members.
  • Why fees paid by systems are greater than in the private sector.
  • The cost to taxpayers of unfunded liability.
  • Pension bonds over 25 years will cost more to pay off than they save.
  • The reported general economic benefit of pension benefits.
  • The impact of Act 120 on pension costs.
  • The effectiveness of defined benefit versus defined contribution plans.
  • The use of index funds to reduce fees and boost returns.
  • The returns of fund investments compared to the S&P 500.
  • The effect of the Governor’s proposed sales tax on professional services on pension costs.
  • The average pension payout since 2000.
  • The effect of economic downturns on unfunded liability.
  • The need for citizens to plan for retirement.
  • Ideas for reducing costs of employees not affected by Act 120 reforms.
  • Feasibility of the Governor’s plan to slash management fees yet increase returns.
  • Costs of transitioning from defined benefit to defined contribution plan.

State

Thursday, Mar 26

 

Acting Secretary of State Pedro Cortes discussed several election-related and state licensing issues during the final instalment of the second week of Appropriations Committee budget hearings. Specific topics discussed during the session included:

  • Status of a notification system when medical professionals are charged with a crime.
  • Online voter registration.
  • Business licensing.
  • The Governor’s proposed sales tax expansion to include professional services.
  • The Gosnell abortion clinic case.
  • Absentee voting.
  • State athletic commission.
  • Costs of advertising constitutional amendment ballot questions.
  • State boards and commissions.
  • Information technology equipment.

State Police/Homeland Security

Wednesday, Mar. 18

Committee members recognized the loss of fallen State Troopers and commended State Police for the successful Eric Frein manhunt. Acting State Police Commissioner Col. Marcus Brown and Lt. Col. George Bivens answered questions concerning:

  • Funding for 350 additional cadets and current State Police complement.
  • Increased workload from covering municipalities that dissolve local police departments.
  • The level of State Police training capabilities.
  • Pension reform and excluding State Police from pension benefits reductions.
  • Costs associated with the Eric Frein manhunt and the performance of equipment during the search.
  • Performance of new State Police vehicles.
  • The Acting Commissioner’s stance on local police radar.
  • The number of troopers assigned to casinos and projections of future needs.
  • Overtime costs and projected retirements.
  • Cost of statewide radio system and progress on implementation.
  • The cost of legislative affairs personnel within State Police.
  • Gaming enforcement troopers paid by casinos.
  • Costs of mandatory background checks and fingerprinting.
  • The possibility of using county 911 centers to dispatch state police.
  • Giving municipalities the ability to pay for State Police coverage.
  • Federal lawsuit on standards for female State Police applicants, and diversity hiring efforts.
  • State Police investigations under the state Clean Indoor Air Act.
  • Coordinating federal and interstate efforts to battle heroin epidemic.
  • The Acting Commissioner’s support for the Second Amendment.
  • Legislation to combat underage drinking and binge drinking.
  • The effect of the Administration’s long-term economic policy on the ability to fund essential services such as State Police.

State-Related Universities

Tuesday, Mar. 24

 

Representatives of Pennsylvania’s state-related universities answered questions regarding potential tuition increases and the effect of the governor’s budget proposal on tuition rates.

Other topics discussed during the hearing included:

  • The impact on students if the governor’s sales tax increase is enacted.
  • Certificate programs and other ways to help graduates meet the needs of employers.
  • The cost, expense and availability of online education programs.
  • Potential savings from the elimination of prevailing wage requirements for construction projects.
  • Progress on making higher education more military-friendly.
  • The total annual cost of higher education including tuition, fees and housing.
  • Four-year graduation rates.
  • The number of employees covered by PSERS and the effect of pension cost increases.
  • The proposed merger between Penn State Health and Hershey Medical Center.
  • Funding for agriculture research and education.
  • Tuition remission for university personnel and their families.

Thaddeus Stevens College

Tuesday, Mar. 24

Thaddeus Stevens College

The committee explored the history and mission of the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology with school president William Griscom. Among the topics covered were:

  • The need for skilled workers, such as machinists, welders and metal fabricators.
  • The effect of the Governor’s proposed sales tax increase on students.
  • The average tuition and student debt.
  • Services for students with learning disabilities.
  • The results of an audit of the school’s operations.
  • Graduates entering the workforce in demand for high-paying jobs.
  • The fact that skilled workers are aging and there are not enough Pennsylvania graduates to fill available six-figure jobs.
  • Cost per pupil and student demographics.

Transportation

Tuesday, Mar. 31

 

Acting Transportation Secretary Leslie Richards fielded questions about the state’s transportation system including:

  • Act 89, the state’s transportation funding plan, and the positive impact it has had on infrastructure.
  • Addressing the serious pothole problem caused by the harsh winter.
  • Federal legislation and funding needed to continue improvements.
  • Public-private partnerships for bridge replacement and other projects.
  • Exemptions for emissions testing for new vehicles.
  • The state’s Dirt and Gravel Road Program and its success in protecting streams.
  • Ensuring that seasonal workers are treated fairly with unemployment compensation and other benefits.
  • How to move transportation and development projects forward while protecting the environment.
  • Notifying communities when bridges are going to be closed or weight-restricted.
  • Solving serious traffic issues on Route 422.
  • A status report on the state’s structurally deficient bridges.
  • Encouraging the use of compressed natural gas and increasing the number of stations.
  • Updating the Pennsylvania Transit Revitalization Investment District (TRID) Act.

Treasury Department

Monday, Mar. 17

Representatives of the Pennsylvania Treasury Department highlighted the importance of addressing the public employee pension crisis and the impact of the state’s bond rating downgrade.

Other topics discussed during the hearing included:

  • The potential effect of additional borrowing in Governor Wolf’s budget.
  • Funding levels for the PA 529 College Savings Program.
  • The rate of return on Treasury investments.
  • Improvements to the Unclaimed Property program.
  • Information technology upgrades.
  • Interest on securities.
  • The cost of outside legal services.
  • Projected cost savings for employers in terms of Worker’s Compensation.