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BUDGET HEARING SUMMARIES
The Senate Appropriations Committee recently completed three weeks of public hearings on the governor’s proposed 2015-16 state budget. As a member of the committee, I had a chance to question the decisions made in putting the proposal together and will play a role in determining where the plan fails to meet community needs. Summaries are listed below, along with my inquiries. To view all hearings in their entirety, click here
The budget process continues over the next few months with the Senate and House of Representatives offering their proposed changes, and working with the governor to implement a final budget by the constitutional deadline of June 30.
I look forward to joining with my colleagues to craft a spending plan that is fiscally responsible and adequately funds core state functions. It will be a thorough, transparent process and one that will focus on the impact the budget will have on the lives of Pennsylvania taxpayers.
Attorney General Kathleen Kane outlined her office’s activities and funding needs. Senator Baker stressed that many rural communities lack the resources to fight drug trafficking and urged cooperation and assistance. She questioned the costs of outside legal counsel, as well as the progress of an ongoing investigation into how royalty payments are calculated for landowners when gas drilling takes place on their property.
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale emphasized the need for public pension reform. Other topics included the frequency of audits for public and charter schools, and the need for accountability measures for Department of Community and Economic Development programs.
Acting Treasurer Chris Craig highlighted the importance of addressing the public pension crisis and the impact of the state’s bond rating downgrade. Senator Baker inquired about the department’s efforts to establish programs to assist parents in planning for the financial needs of disabled children.
The budget request of the Unified Judicial System was discussed at length. Senator Baker questioned justices about cost drivers, such as benefits and COLA’s, and the backlog of cases before the Judicial Conduct Board.
OFFICE OF THE BUDGET
Secretary Randy Albright reviewed the impact of the governor’s proposed tax increases on Pennsylvania’s economy and small businesses, the legal ramifications of combined reporting, and cost containment efforts by school districts.
INDEPENDENT FISCAL OFFICE
Director Matthew Knittel offered an economic outlook for the coming fiscal year. Senator Baker raised concerns about the impact a sales tax increase would have on small businesses. She also questioned the revenue projections contained in the governor’s severance tax proposal, saying it would be difficult to generate the $1 million he is expecting.
DEPARTMENT OF AGING
The loss of senior centers across the state, funding pressures, and long-term care programs were among the topics outlined by Secretary Teresa Osborne. Senator Baker raised concerns about lottery fund projections, PACE and PACENET, and the impact of expanding the sales tax to include nursing home care.
DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE
Secretary Russell Redding fielded questions on farmland preservation efforts, dog licensing and dog law enforcement, and horse racing. Senator Baker asked about ingredient label regulations for food-related fundraisers and funding for fairs.
DEPARTMENT OF BANKING AND SECURITIES
Secretary Robin Wiessman discussed electronic transactions, cybersecurity, and payday lending. Senator Baker focused on the bank shares tax and its impact on community banks.
Community college representatives shared information on the popularity of online courses and workforce development programs. Senator Baker inquired about local sponsorship funding levels, customized job training and apprenticeship opportunities for students, and firefighter educating and training.
DEPARTMENT OF COMMUNITY AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
Secretary Dennis Davin outlined plans to attract business and encourage job growth. Senator Baker raised concerns about the predictability of combined reporting and its impact on companies, and questioned officials about the PREP Partnership, which is critical to the manufacturing industry.
DEPARTMENT OF CONSERVATION AND NATURAL RESOURCES
The benefits and impacts of natural gas drilling on public lands was discussed at length. Senator Baker questioned Secretary Cindy Dunn about funding for heritage parks and high-hazard dams.
DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS/BOARD OF PROBATION AND PAROLE
Secretary John Wetzel and Chairman John Tuttle explored several issues relating to Pennsylvania’s prison population including the rising costs associated with incarcerating inmates, recidivism rates, and increased caseloads for county probation officers. Senator Baker applauded allowing crime victims to provide in-person testimony at parole hearings and questioned education and training programs for inmates and costs savings through the justice reinvestment initiative.
DEPARTMENT OF DRUG AND ALCOHOL PROGRAMS
Pennsylvania’s heroin epidemic was reviewed. Senator Baker asked Secretary Gary Tennis about the goals for the state plan on drug and alcohol abuse prevention and treatment.
DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION
Committee members told 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, the cyber education funding formula, and disparities in proposed property tax reductions.
PENNSYLVANIA EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY
The challenges of funding 911 and the statewide radio system were among the many matters covered by Director Richard Flinn and Fire Marshall Timothy Solobay. Senator Baker discussed the value of the local emergency relief line item, hazard mitigation efforts to prevent reoccurrence of flooding, and state assistance for volunteer recruitment and retention efforts.
DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION
Secretary John Quigly explained his request to fund 50 new inspectors. Senator Baker questioned the governor's proposed severance tax for Marcellus Shale gas wells and its potential impact on landowners, the Delaware River Basin Commission, and the drafting of new riparian buffer regulations.
GAMING CONTROL BOARD
Chairman William Ryan reported on the health of the gaming industry and ways to increase gaming revenue. Senator Baker inquired about the property tax relief fund.
DEPARTMENT OF GENERAL SERVICES
Senator Baker questioned Secretary Curt Topper on reduced bulk rates associated with fleet vehicles, the annual number and cost of public works projects in Pennsylvania, and the need to encourage more veteran-owned businesses to compete for state contracts.
DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH
Senator Baker asked Secretary Karen Murphy and Physician General Rachel Levine about the funding challenges facing Emergency Medical Services and explained the important services they provide in rural areas.
HISTORICAL & MUSEUM COMMISSION
Senators discussed the importance of cultural and historical sites to tourism and the use of public-private partnerships and volunteers to operate historical sites.
DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES
During questioning on the Department of Human Services’ budget, Senator Baker expressed 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. She cited high costs and a lack of involvement in the Commonwealth.
DEPARTMENT OF INSURANCE
Commissioner Teresa Miller answered questions regarding the federal health care law, Worker’s Compensation savings for employers, the unfunded liability for MCARE, and the number of malpractice claims in Pennsylvania.
DEPARTMENT OF LABOR AND INDUSTRY
Senator Baker asked Secretary Kathy Manderino about staff complement and pension-related costs, the implementation of the Workforce Investment Act, the need to increase vocational rehabilitation funding, savings in workers compensation costs, and the rationale for using an out of state company to conduct labor negotiations.
LIQUOR CONTROL BOARD
Members of the Liquor Control Board debated the various proposals to privatize or modernize the state system. Senator Baker wondered if the governor's proposed sales tax increase would impact wine and spirits sales, and asked for details on consulting contracts and the proposal to allow 24-hour alcohol sales in casinos.
DEPARTMENT OF MILITARY AND VETERANS AFFAIRS
General James Joseph summarized the state services provided to veterans. Senator Baker inquired about the progress of the veterans service outreach program, the Veterans' Trust Fund, health care for veterans, and the future of the National Guard.
PUBLIC UTILITIES COMMISSION
Senator Baker questioned Public Utility Commissioners on their role with pipeline safety oversight, concerns about the gathering line system in Pennsylvania, and the status of capturing shallow gas lines through the PA One Call System.
DEPARTMENT OF REVENUE
Secretary Eileen McNulty was questioned about the governor’s numerous tax increases. Senator Baker conveyed the frustration that small business owners have in calculating the sales tax they pay and relayed concerns about drillers passing down the cost of the severance tax to landowners.
DEPARTMENT OF STATE
Online voter registration and professional licensure boards were among the topics covered by Secretary Pedro Cortes. Senator Baker inquired about "no excuse" absentee voting, the replacement of aging voting machines, and online campaign finance reporting.
STATE EMPLOYEES RETIREMENT SYSTEM
Senator Baker questioned representatives of the two retirement systems about the impact of Obama care on their operations and the ratio of retirees versus active members.
STATE POLICE/HOMELAND SECURITY
Commissioner Marcus Brown justified the need for additional cadets in light of an expected retirement wave in the next few years. Senator Baker commended the efforts of the PSP during the manhunt for the killer of Corporal Bryon Dickson in Pike County and questioned the costs involved in the operation.
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 included the number of employees covered by PSERS and the effect of pension cost increases, potential savings from the elimination of prevailing wage requirements for construction projects, and funding for agriculture research and education.
STATE SYSTEM OF HIGHER EDUCATION
Chancellor Frank Brogan discussed declining enrollment and its effects on tuition. Senator Baker commented on the hours of operation for libraries, tuition assistance for National Guard members, and the roles of universities in community outreach.
THADDEUS STEVENS COLLEGE
The committee listened to President William Griscom share the school’s history and mission and discussed the need for skilled workers, such as machinists, welders and metal fabricators, as well as services for students with learning disabilities.
DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION
Secretary Leslie Richards outlined the positive impact the state’s transportation funding plan has had on infrastructure. Senator Baker praised the Dirt and Gravel Road program and its success in protecting streams, and asked about the balance between moving transportation and development projects forward while protecting the environment.
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