Senator Baker Discusses Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Issues at County Commissioners Association Spring Conference

My Senatorial District includes all or part of six counties. That provides plenty of opportunity. To interact with county officials. To see county government in action. To hear what you hope state government will do to help. To field frustrations over what state government does that is not helpful. All this give-and-take assures that I see familiar faces at this gathering. Never doubted the important role of counties, but continue to be impressed by all the responsibilities you take on or are handed.

County commissioners were probably the first to realize that the state slogan has changed. The new one is – Pennsylvania: We Have No Money. If things do not change soon, the next one will be – Pennsylvania: The Revenue Shortfall State.

Many years ago, a gubernatorial candidate in North Carolina was laying out ambitious plans for transforming the state. After his presentation, a questioner skeptically asked how in the world he was going to pay for all these wonderful things. The candidate hesitated for a moment, then decided to plunge ahead. “There is only one place we can go to get money – from taxes.” To his surprise, the audience broke into applause, instead of grabbing for the pitchforks and torches.

After the event, the candidate was still pumped. “Did you hear what happened? Contrary to your high-priced advice, I leveled with the crowd, and they really appreciated it.” At which point his senior campaign aide interjected: “I hate to burst your bubble, but those folks thought you said you were getting the money from Texas.”

In our current budgetary distress, we are not getting any funding from Texas either. So whether the discussion involves the agenda of a single Senate committee, as this one does, or that of the entire state apparatus, revenue shortfalls shadow it all. One commentator holds that revenue collapse might be more accurate.

Former Colorado Governor Richard Lamm has an interesting take on our government predicament. “Christmas is a time when kids tell Santa what they want, and adults pay for it. Deficits are when adults tell the government what they want – and their kids pay for it.”

The serious belt-tightening and program evaluation that have been routine in many counties are now viewed as necessary in state government. The days when state spending was simply increased to try to buy a better result are gone.

Anti-tax fervor is running high. The realization grows that we cannot afford to hamstring economic recovery through higher taxes and heavier regulation. The prolonged economic slump and the continuing revenue shortfalls are forcing us to rethink what used to be sacred cows of policy. Prisons and pensions are two examples of closed matters now openly in play for policy overhauls.

This, then, is the climate under which a committee agenda is set. The Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee does not sound like a glamour assignment. But it is a terrific committee to chair.

One major reason is the constituencies. When you move a bill that helps fulfill Pennsylvania’s obligations to veterans, there is a sense of having done something worthwhile. When you see the quality and the spirit and the intensity of the missions of the Pennsylvania National Guard, supporting them is vital work too. When you consider what further losses of firefighters and rescue personnel would mean to small communities, you understand purpose.

A second reason is that our discussions are about policy. The issues just do not break down along partisan lines. How far we can go, how fast we can go, and how the bill gets paid, this is what we discuss. It is far from the political roller derby you read so much about.

A third reason is that almost every issue we touch either has shared responsibilities or local implications. Nothing we attempt truly works without consultation in the development and cooperation in the implementation. That yields a better legislative product.

When the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs came in for their Senate budget hearing, it was not a quick in, quick out exercise. That is indicative of the additional scrutiny every state government entity is receiving these days. And it reflected widespread concern that this important constituency not be shortchanged by tight state finances. They did not hesitate when the call to deploy came, so we should not defer providing services they need and deserve.

Pennsylvania needs three more veterans’ homes. A recent report identified likely spots as Central PA, the Lehigh Valley, and Williamsport. A new generation of vets is starting to hit critical care time. With Pennsylvania throwing up prisons to house bad actors like they are fast food franchises, it is hard to justify delay on homes for the protectors of freedom.

We will continue to closely work with the county veterans affairs directors on a coordinated approach to veterans’ outreach without placing new burdensome mandates. The state partnership with service organizations like the VFW and American Legion have achieved remarkable results for our veterans – nearly 90 back for every 1 state dollar invested. Must ensure every level of outreach is standard and consistent across the Commonwealth.

I realize the risks of merely mentioning courts in this room. But there is a lot of interest in specialized courts dealing with veterans. Watching how drug courts have worked, the potential for veterans’ courts to work seems quite promising. Given the spottiness of funding for the drug courts, reluctance to go down this parallel road would not be surprising. To pursue this avenue, we will have to do more than promise future funding consideration.

As you know from listening to your county emergency management folks, this assignment covers a lot more territory than it used to. With PEMA having a notion about a rewrite of Title 35, the field gets more wide open.

As a practical matter, an undertaking this large and complicated will get done under the new Administration. Chances are the next administration is not going to have priorities that are a carbon copy of Rendell’s.

You still have to deal with the aftermath of snowstorms courtesy of Mother Nature. As tempting as it might be, the feds will probably not let any of us declare our budget to be a disaster area. As the recent storms reminded, the reimbursement process is anything but smooth and timely. It takes a lot of work to make the case and satisfy the feds, but until the process changes, that is the way it is played.

We continue to receive assurances that the last glitches will be squeezed out of the statewide radio network. We have poured tons of money into the network, but when fully functional it should make integrated emergency communications a working reality, and daily prove its worth.

Issues relating to firefighters come through the committee. The firehouse is a staple of Pennsylvania communities, as relevant today as a century ago. Service is more challenging, with hazmat and homeland security and other dangerous demands thrown in. We could not begin to afford to pay for all the time, talent, and energy devoted on a volunteer basis. Several reports have laid out the menu of incentives for recruiting and retaining firefighters. The next time the state has some spare dollars, this is a priority place to put them.

Tomorrow, we are holding a joint hearing on 911 system issues. Technology has a tendency for outpacing law and regulation. By the time we bring the law current, a new product has already grabbed public popularity. Pre-paid cell phones are now 20% of the market. At a time when we are scrounging for dollars, we cannot afford to see $10 million drained from 911 system funding. The standard array of philosophical and practical objections must be overcome. Someday perhaps we can create a funding mechanism that anticipates, rather than trails, technology.

You may have noticed that the state Senate is holding more public hearings. Sort of ironic, the closing of lines of funding forces opening up the lines of communication. Our good intentions are often plagued by unintended consequences, so it is fair turnabout that our problems give up an unexpected improvement.

During tough economic times, decisionmaking always has Olympic degree-of-difficulty. Forging solutions these days is hampered even more by the lack of trust. The low poll ratings public officials receive reflect a serious lack of public trust in the workings of government. Your numbers are better than ours, but we are all in the tank in terms of public confidence.

The bad economy has magnified mistakes and misjudgments, and put a heavy penalty on overly optimistic policy assumptions. Going forward, we have to re-examine our spending habits, our tax structure, our policies and procedures, and our relationships with other levels of government. State government should hit the brakes hard on mandates. But we have to go back and reconsider whether existing mandates are necessary and fair, if state funding is going to be reduced, to the extent and for the duration we believe it will be.

When we act to shrink state government, the areas under the jurisdiction of the committee – veterans services, Guard readiness, emergency preparedness – are simply not areas where we can reasonably or responsibly cut back. These are core services and primary obligations of state government. So we will have an agenda, to improve services to meet needs. And your views will be part of that decisionmaking.

Intergovernmental cooperation will be key. Because if we hope to stretch fewer dollars across heavier demands for service, we all have to get more efficient in a hurry. The public expects no less.

Contact: Jennifer Wilson
(570) 675-3931

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