Budget Hearing Summaries
In March, the Senate Appropriations Committee completed three weeks of public hearings on the governor’s proposed 2016-17 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.
DEPARTMENT OF AGING
Secretary Teresa Osborne was asked by Senator Baker to explore ways to improve the approval process for the Aging Waiver program. Baker said she realized from personal experience that it is a much too complicated and lengthy process, something with which the secretary agreed.
DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE
Secretary Russell Redding fielded questions from Senator Baker regarding ongoing constituent concerns about the uncertainty of funding for county fairs and cooperative extensions. She also urged him to have a dialogue with Secretary Curt Topper from the Department of General Services about eliminating duplication of services and using one metrology lab between the two departments.
Attorney General Kathleen Kane outlined her office’s activities and funding needs, which includes an increased appropriation. In addition, the committee asked about mandatory minimum sentencing, Pennsylvania’s war on drugs, and the prescription drug monitoring system.
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale was asked about several audits currently being conducted by the office. Discussions also included municipal pensions and “missing” funds in Pennsylvania school districts facing tax increases.
DEPARTMENT OF COMMUNITY AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
Secretary Dennis Davin was questioned regarding funding delays created by the governor’s budget vetoes. Other topics included leveraging public-private partnerships to increase tourism and attract new businesses to the state, the possibility of further military base closures in Pennsylvania and the impact of the natural gas industry on economic development and job growth.
DEPARTMENT OF CONSERVATION AND NATURAL RESOURCES
Committee members sought details on department funding requests from Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn. The importance of Act 13 natural gas development impact fee revenue and the performance of the Deer Management Assistance Program were also discussed.
DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS/BOARD OF PROBATION AND PAROLE
Senator Baker asked several questions of Secretary John Wetzel including whether there were plans to close any of the three state correctional facilities in the 20th District and whether pay disparities between commissioned officers, managers and corrections officers were being addressed.
DEPARTMENT OF DRUG AND ALCOHOL PROGRAMS
The drug abuse epidemic in Pennsylvania was the main point of discussion during a public hearing with Secretary of Drug and Alcohol Programs Gary Tennis. Topics discussed during the hearing included the use of naloxone in drug overdose and abuse treatment; the effectiveness of prescription drug take-back programs and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and drug addiction among veterans.
DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION
Senator Baker asked Secretary Pedro Rivera to look into transportation reimbursements for rural pre-kindergarten programs. She also inquired about how counseling services funds are distributed and what improvements are being made to ensure proper vocational education access for disabled students.
DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION
Senate Appropriations Committee members questioned DEP Secretary John Quigley about plans to implement new federal coal regulations, the Marcellus Shale Impact Fee and proposed natural gas tax, and efforts to help municipalities reduce groundwater runoff.
DEPARTMENT OF GENERAL SERVICES
Senator Baker asked Department of General Services Secretary Curt Topper for updates on security upgrades being made to the Capitol and wanted to know if duplication of services among departments is being evaluated in an effort to save money.
DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH
The challenges facing the Emergency Medical Services system, including decreased volunteer rates and funding reductions, was the focus of the conversation between Senator Baker and Secretary Karen Murphy. They shared mutual concern over recruitment and retention issues regarding physicians and other health care professionals in rural areas.
DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES
During questioning on the Department of Human Services’ budget with Secretary Ted Dallas, Senator Baker expressed concerns about the governor’s vetoing of funding for critical access hospitals and urged funds to be released. She also asked for details on how the governor’s executive order increasing the minimum wage for employees at companies with state contracts would impact annual state costs and how many contractors would be affected.
INDEPENDENT FISCAL OFFICE
Executive Director Matthew Knittel discussed the need to address spending and cost-drivers in the budget. Additional topics included pension costs and the long-term budget impacts of pension debt, potential reductions in revenues from the Marcellus Shale Impact Fee, and the economic impact of Governor’s Wolf’s proposed tax increases.
Judiciary Justice Max Baer and Justice Debra McCloskey Todd answered questions on a variety of issues related to Pennsylvania’s court system including the high number of juvenile offenders serving life sentences, the growing incidence of elder abuse, and the effectiveness of special veterans courts.
DEPARTMENT OF LABOR AND INDUSTRY
Senator Baker and Secretary Kathy Manderino discussed initiatives to train and employ people with disabilities, transferring PA One Call oversight and enforcement to the Public Utility Commission, and increases in workers’ compensation claims.
LIQUOR CONTROL BOARD
Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board Chairman Tim Holden, Board member Michael Negra and Executive Director John Metzger outlined costs savings initiatives, expanded operating hours and special pricing, competitiveness with neighboring states, and pension costs.
DEPARTMENT OF MILITARY AND VETERANS AFFAIRS
Senator Baker sought updates on the Gino Merli Center in Scranton and its provisional license status, and the effectiveness of the Veterans Trust Fund. She also inquired whether an initiative like the Persian Gulf Bonus Program was being considered for those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
OFFICE OF THE BUDGET
Budget Secretary Randy Albright was questioned at length about the governor’s proposed 2016-17 budget. The precedent of vetoing legislatively approved appropriations and then seeking funds from state Treasury and skyrocketing pension costs were also debated.
PENNSYLVANIA EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY
PEMA Director Richard Flinn fielded inquires related to the state’s ability to prepare for and respond to emergencies, the hiring of a state meteorologist, and outreach efforts to disabled individuals during disasters.
DEPARTMENT OF REVENUE
Senator Baker questioned Revenue Secretary Eileen McNulty about the financial hit families and businesses would take if a proposed retroactive 11 percent increase in the personal income tax were implemented and what efforts were being made to boost lottery revenues.
STATE POLICE/HOMELAND SECURITY
State Police Commissioner Colonel Tyree Blocker provided an update on the cadet class cheating investigation at the State Police Academy. He also provided an update on the statewide radio system, police use of body cameras, and the impact of the heroin epidemic on police resources and communities.
Representatives of Pennsylvania’s state-related universities – Temple, Pittsburgh, Lincoln and Penn State – answered questions from Senator Baker regarding graduation and freshmen retention rates. In addition, she asked about initiatives to bolster workforce preparation and training, and credentialing programs.
STATE SYSTEM OF HIGHER EDUCATION
Senator Baker asked Chancellor Frank T. Brogan about system operational costs, including pension obligations and health care increases, and how the schools are meeting the needs spelled out in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.
DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION
Senator Baker urged Secretary Leslie Richards to address four-digit state roads in rural areas and raised concerns over accidents involving pedestrians and the increasing number of incidents involving wrong-way drivers on interstates.
The Wolf Administration’s spending practices during the budget impasse were scrutinized during discussions with Pennsylvania Treasurer Timothy Reese. Senators asked about the potential consequences of unauthorized spending on future budget debates and spending practices in other states during a budget impasse.