News from Second and State
This was the first of two weeks of budget hearing double hitters, with both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees hearing presentations from different offices and agencies. Chaired by Sen. Pat Browne (R-Lehigh) and Sen. Vince Hughes (D-Philadelphia), the Senate Appropriations Committee was all about the money on Monday, beginning its week with a presentation by Budget Secretary Randy Albright. Secretary Albright gave a soup to nuts overview of Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed budget, fielding questions from members about just about every part of it, including school funding, pension and property tax reforms. Immediately after, the Independent Fiscal Office appeared before the committee to discuss the much-debated deficit, as well as the revenue that would be generated under Wolf’s tax proposals. Finally, the Senate heard from the Department of General Services, with much of the discussion focusing on the governor’s “GO-TIME” initiative and the savings that the program might generate.
The House started off the week with a lengthy hearing with the Department of Education. Since Gov. Wolf’s proposal contemplates increases in early, basic and higher education funding, most of the debate focused on how those monies would be divvied up and driven out. The House then held a hearing for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, with plenty of discussion about the issue of drilling on state forest lands. Last up before the House was the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, where the focus was programs that could help our men and women in uniform, including programs for unemployed and homeless veterans, as well as proposed increase in funding for veterans homes proposed in the budget.
Day two of week two started with the House budget hearing with the Department of Transportation, where members’ questions centered on public private partnerships and funding for road and infrastructure repair. Next up, the Department of Labor and Industry appeared before the committee to discuss the governor’s proposed increase in the state’s minimum wage, as well as federal funding that may be available for career training programs. The House closed out Tuesday’s hearings with a joint presentation by the Department of Health and the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. Hot topics included drug overdoses and the Commonwealth’s heroin epidemic, including the use of non-narcotic treatments to quell addiction, the ongoing debate about state immunization requirements and exemptions, and legislation to regulate biosimilars. Members were also concerned about the zeroing out of particular line items for research on particular ailments and diseases.
Meanwhile in the Senate, all three row officers presented their proposed budgets. Attorney General Kathleen Kane reported on the success of the Mobile Street Crimes Unit and fielded questions about the heroin epidemic generally, as well as human trafficking and Medicaid fraud. Acting Treasurer Christopher Craig discussed the impact of the commonwealths’ bond rating on borrowing costs, and finally, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale warned that the state’s municipal audits are only getting worse.
Law and order was the issue of the day on Wednesday, with both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees hearing presentations from the Pennsylvania State Police, Office of Homeland Security and the Judiciary. Common topics discussed with the State Police included the heroin epidemic, a possible upgrade to the statewide radio system and the value of using the National Instant Check System for background checks, as well as law enforcement efforts in casinos and with liquor control. The Judiciary also presented its proposed budget to both committees, asking for a $30 million increase over last year’s appropriation. Their hearings also included dialogue about problem solving courts – like drug courts and veterans’ courts –the use of fines and fees collected by the courts, and the number and types of cases coming before the Judicial Conduct Board. The Department of Corrections presented its budget request to the House Appropriations Committee only on Wednesday, with a lot of talk centering on controlling the cost of corrections, ways to combat the increasing use of heroin, officer safety and staffing issues, and the condition of some of the state’s correctional facilities. Finally, the Senate held a budget hearing with the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. And while not a public safety agency per se, much of the conversation did hit on the same topics of earlier hearings, including the heroin epidemic and the drug and alcohol treatment for the incarcerated or previously incarcerated.
Most of the discussion on Thursday was about higher education, with both the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) and the community colleges presenting their budget proposals to both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. In the House, dialogue with PASSHE included a discussion of the impact of the proposed increase in sales tax on college housing and fees. In the Senate, members asked about Gov. Wolf’s proposed tuition freeze, which PASSHE wouldn’t commit to until more information about the budget overall becomes available. Hearings with the community colleges before both committees focused on dual enrollment, job readiness and the role of community colleges in creating an affordable bridge between high school and a four year college. The House also heard from the Liquor Control Board and kicked around issues like the price of liquor, direct shipment and the profitability of the board. Additionally, the Senate heard from the Gaming Control Board and questioned the board about property tax relief, as well as employment and security issues at the commonwealth’s casinos.
A Look Ahead:
It’s more of the same next week, when budget hearings continue in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. For a full list of hearings, go to: http://www.legis.state.pa.us/
In Other News:
- Martina White (R) will face Sarah Del Ricci (D) in a special election on Tuesday, March 24. The election in HD-170 is being held for the seat vacated by Brendan Boyle, who now serves in Congress. http://www.northeasttimes.com/2015/mar/18/special-election-nears-candidates-remain-optimisti/#.VQxFeMbD_zN
- Lt. Gov. Mike Stack partnered up with Philly teacher-turned-actor Tony Danza to read to students in Philadelphia. Check out: http://wallaby.telicon.com/PA/library/2015/2015031648.HTM
- Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman will address the Press Club on Monday, March 23. For more information: http://wallaby.telicon.com/PA/library/2015/2015031699.HTM
- Rep. Scott Conklin has been named Democratic Chairman of the House Children and Youth Committee. Go to: http://wallaby.telicon.com/PA/library/2014/2014062372.HTM
- Buchanan has issued advisories on Gov. Wolf’s proposed changes to the Tax Reform Code. See: http://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/sales-use-tax-to-increase-base-to-be-21813 (Sales Tax); http://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/wolf-budget-proposes-extraction-tax-78348/ (Extraction Tax); http://www.bipc.com/wolf-budget-proposes-changes-to-corporate-taxes-in-2015-2016-budget-03-17-2015/ (Corporate Taxes)