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Senator Don White

Harrisburg Happenings

A report on the budget hearings held during the week of February 27, 2017
By Senator Don White
41th Senatorial District

Special Report: 2017-18 Budget Hearings

The Senate Appropriations Committee held its second week of public hearings on Governor Wolf’s proposed state budget for the 2017-18 Fiscal Year. The Appropriations Committee heard detailed reports from several cabinet secretaries and other officials over the four-day period of February 27-March 2. This special edition of Harrisburg Happenings provides day-by-day highlights from those hearings.

More information on the budget, as well as photos, audio and video from the hearings, is available at: www.pasenategop.com/state-budget/

Monday, February 27, 2017

Department of Agriculture

Opening up the second week of budget hearings, Appropriations Committee members questioned Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding about major cuts in programs that have been historically supported by the General Assembly. Questions focused on:

  • The governor’s proposal to eliminate funding for the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine.
  • The proposed lease-leaseback arrangement for the Farm Show Complex.
  • The dog license fee increase and the diversion of revenue for unrelated programs.
  • Farmland preservation and the impact of proposed gas pipelines.
  • Promotion of industrial hemp, a major state agricultural product.
  • EPA requirements regarding the cleanup of Chesapeake Bay.
  • The Department’s role in regulating medical marijuana growers.
  • Chronic Wasting Disease and its impact on deer herds.
  • The PA Preferred Program.
  • The financial viability of the State Racing Fund.

Video of the hearing.

Department of General Services

General Services Secretary Curtis Topper discussed the Governor’s proposed appropriation for his Department, which is 3.1 percent lower than for 2016-17. Also discussed were:

  • Plans for savings through procurement.
  • Energy consumption and savings.
  • The Farm Show Complex lease-lease back proposal.
  • Efforts to reduce the vehicle fleet size and manage transportation costs.
  • Capitol Building security and the recent incident of vandalism.
  • Sole source contracts.
  • Update on sale and transfer of former SCI Cresson property.
  • The antiquated laws governing the sale of government property.
  • The quality of the DGS IT system.
  • Disposal of surplus government properties.

Video of the hearing.

Department of Transportation

Transportation Secretary Leslie Richards fielded questions on the Department’s proposed budget and ongoing efforts to improve Pennsylvania’s roads and bridges. The hearing included questions on the following:

  • An update on Act 89 – the Transportation Funding Act.
  • The need to expedite the Department’s grant process.
  • Public Private Partnerships.
  • A new emissions inspection program and the cost to small stations.
  • Legislation exempting newer vehicles from emissions testing and the dichotomy of testing in different areas.
  • Project Labor Agreements.
  • The potential impact of the Governor’s early retirement proposal.
  • An initiative to improve smaller roads that have not been paved for many years.
  • An assessment of the Department’s IT system.
  • The importance of aviation.
  • Formulas used to distribute liquid fuels funding.
  • Delays in transportation projects caused by environmental studies.
  • Litter along interstate highways.

Video of the hearing.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Department of Labor & Industry

During a budget hearing with Secretary of Labor & Industry Kathy Manderino, members of the Appropriations Committee expressed frustration about persistent problems with the Unemployment Compensation (UC) system. Other topics of discussion included:

  • How funding dedicated to the Service and Infrastructure Improvement Fund was allocated.
  • The amount of funding lost to UC overpayments.
  • The impact of additional layoffs for individuals serving the UC system.
  • The criteria used in deciding which UC call centers were closed.
  • The five-fold increase in wait times for UC callers in January 2017.
  • Ways to reduce duplication of services in job training programs.
  • Ongoing support for the Strategic Early Warning Network program.
  • How calls to UC call centers are assigned to representatives.
  • The potential need for additional funding for the Bureau of Occupational and Industrial Safety.
  • The cost of all necessary IT upgrades for the entire department.
  • Steps to make the State Workers' Insurance Fund more user-friendly.
  • The Administration’s proposal to significantly raise the minimum wage.
  • The number of employees covered by collective bargaining contracts.

Video of the hearing.

Judiciary

State Supreme Court Justices Christine Donohue and Sallie Updyke Mundy answered questions on a variety of issues related to Pennsylvania’s court system including:

  • Effectiveness of specialty/problem solving courts.
  • Cost saving measures adopted by the judicial branch.
  • Specific judicial committees.
  • Statewide uniform judicial system measures and initiatives.
  • Consolidation of offices and reductions in district justice positions.
  • Probation violations.
  • Utilization of office space in the state Judicial Center.
  • The impact of the opioid epidemic.
  • Mandated sentencing.
  • A proposed increase in common pleas judges.

Video of the hearing.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Department of Military & Veterans Affairs

Brigadier General Anthony Carrelli, State Adjutant General, fielded questions about the Department of Military & Veterans Affairs’ $374.7 million budget request. The following issues were discussed:

  • The current number of Guard members deployed and potential future deployments.
  • The stability of the Veterans Trust Fund, which currently has a $2.2 million balance.
  • The need for $500,000 more for Veterans Outreach.
  • The Veterans Registry and its service to Pennsylvania’s 900,000 veterans. The possibility of adding to the current six veterans’ homes.
  • The cost of operating veterans’ homes compared to civilian nursing homes.
  • The privatization and out-sourcing of services in veterans’ homes.
  • The solvency of the Veterans Education Assistance Program.
  • The effect of the federal defense budget on Pennsylvania.
  • The establishment of veterans’ courts in 20 counties and the practicality of expanding to all 67 counties.

Video of the hearing.

State Related Universities

Presidents and Chancellors of Pennsylvania’s state-related universities discussed the challenges facing their institutions during a budget hearing with members of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Other topics of discussion included:

  • Rising tuition costs and student loan debt.
  • Potential changes in curriculum based on economic trends and student needs.
  • Targeted goals for cost savings at each university.
  • Projected tuition increases for next year.
  • Efforts to promote financial literacy among students.
  • Four-year and six-year graduation rates.
  • Allocation of medical center spending.
  • Percentage of faculty that choose a defined contribution pension plan instead of a defined benefit plan.
  • The Governor’s proposed reduction in PHEAA grants.
  • Tuition differences at branch campuses.
  • The impact on pension systems resulting from early retirement incentive packages.
  • The cost of advanced technical degrees.
  • PHEAA grants for students who complete all coursework online.

Video of the hearing.

DCNR

Committee members asked Secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Cindy Adams Dunn questions about programs and services provided by the agency, including:

  • The use of bond money for ongoing operations.
  • Programs to reduce farmland erosion and protect the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
  • An audit of oil and gas well royalties.
  • Reuse of abandoned mine sites for recreational activities.
  • Entrance fees for state parks.
  • Revenues from timber sales and how timbering is managed.
  • A reduction in the Department's employees.
  • The online system for renting cabins in state parks.
  • A new fee structure for various park services.
  • The Growing Greener program.
  • Efforts to address impaired streams and improve water quality.
  • Replacement of older buildings with energy-efficient structures.
  • Boards and commissions under the DCNR.
  • Economic benefits of parks, trails and heritage areas.

Video of the hearing.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Department of Corrections/ Board of Probation & Parole

Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel and Chairman of the Board of Probation and Parole Leo Dunn answered questions during the hearing for the proposed Department of Criminal Justice, created by merging the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. Issues discussed at the hearing included:

  • Community input and transparency in the process of prison closures.
  • Reductions in prison populations and recidivism rates.
  • The experience in other states that combine corrections and probation and parole.
  • Changing the treatment of technical parole violators.
  • Potential future prison closures.
  • Reducing high employee turnover rate.
  • Mandatory overtime.
  • Cost-saving measures.
  • Mandatory-minimum sentences.
  • Boot camps for non-violent offenders.
  • Risk assessments to transition non-violent offenders back into the community.

Video of the hearing.

Liquor Control Board

Representatives from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board outlined the positive impacts of the modernization measures approved by lawmakers last year. Other topics discussed during the hearing included:

  • The increase in the number of wine retailers.
  • The increase in the number of state stores open on Sundays.
  • Inflated costs for top-shelf liquor.
  • Warehouse and transportation costs incurred by the wholesale system.
  • Concerns about operating costs outpacing sales growth.
  • The bidding process for auctioning licenses.
  • State stores that are losing money.
  • Management and organizational structure of PLCB.
  • Liquor law enforcement.

Video of the hearing.

PEMA/Fire Commissioner

PEMA Director Rick Flinn and Fire Commissioner Tim Solobay fielded questions about emergency response as the Senate Appropriations Committee closed out the second week of budget hearings. The following topics were discussed:

  • The E-911 rewrite/reauthorization.
  • Volunteer firefighter grants.
  • PennFIRS (Fire Information Reporting System) program
  • The “reboot” of Senate Resolution 60 to attract and retain new firefighters.
  • Fireworks sales in Pennsylvania.
  • The new PEMA headquarters.
  • The elimination of funding for search and rescue operations.
  • Trends in the numbers and ages of volunteer firefighters.
  • Funding for disaster relief and hazard mitigation.
  • The rewrite of Title 35.

Video of the hearing.

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