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Week of February 18, 2019
The Senate Appropriations Committee is holding three weeks of public hearings on the proposed 2019-20 state budget. Below is a summary of the first week, including key topics discussed, my questions for administration officials, and video of each hearing.
This Week’s Budget Hearings:
- Department of Revenue & Lottery
- Independent Fiscal Office
- Public Utility Commission
- Department of State
- PA State System of Higher Education
- State Police & Homeland Security
- PA Emergency Management Agency & Fire Commissioner
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Department of Revenue & Lottery
Oversight of state contracts is important for protecting taxpayers. I questioned Revenue Secretary Hassell about the impact of the state’s lottery vendor for printing services missing certain deadlines.
The Senate Appropriations Committee opened its three-weeks of hearings on the Governor’s proposed 2019-20 budget with a session with state Revenue Secretary Dan Hassell. Topics discussed during the hearing include:
- Cost savings from the Revenue Department’s technology modernization project.
- The Governor’s proposed combined reporting requirement for businesses.
- Public confidence in the lottery system.
- Taxation of craft brewers.
- Request for Proposals (RFPs) for I-lottery and scratch-off games.
- The state’s vendor for lottery printing services missing deadlines for products.
- Income limits for the Property Tax Rent Rebate program.
- Job losses from the Governor’s proposal to increase the minimum wage.
- Tax collection from online sales
- Advertising costs for lottery scratch-off tickets.
- Minimum salary of $45,000 for teachers.
- The impact of federal tax changes on the PA 592 and ABLE programs.
- Taxes on marijuana.
- Pennsylvania’s tax credit programs
- Changes in the enhanced revenue account since it was set up.
- The feasibility of economic development incentives, such as tax credits, that are revenue-neutral.
- Updates to the tax code and keeping it current with the modern economy.
Independent Fiscal Office
I asked Independent Fiscal Office Director Matthew Knittel about the impact of a minimum wage increase on first-time job holders, including high school and college students, and a potential new tax on health care services.
Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee questioned Independent Fiscal Office Director Matthew Knittel about:
- Growing concerns about the national economic outlook and how that slowdown could impact PA.
- Special funds that function outside of the state budget and what happens when reserves are built up.
- What Pennsylvania is doing in terms of tax policies to attract and retain businesses and create new jobs.
- The effect of using newly implemented performance-based budgeting.
- The impact of a minimum wage increase on first-time job holders, including high school and college students.
- The impact of public policy decisions on population demographics and economic development.
- How new video gaming terminals will affect lottery sales.
- How changes in federal tax law has impacted state programs.
Public Utility Commission
Natural gas developers in Pennsylvania pay an “impact fee” to the state, and I asked commissioners about the collection and dispersal of the fee, as well as concerns over the installation of utility “smart meters.”
The Senate Appropriations Committee discussed the following issue with Public Utility Commission Chair Gladys Brown and commissioners:
- Assessment fees on the regulated utilities, which funds the PUC.
- The ongoing need for reliable broadband in rural areas.
- Outdated regulations on telecommunication carriers of last resort.
- Nuclear energy, and the effect of not including nuclear energy in state Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards.
- Steps being taken to ensure the safety of communities located near natural gas pipelines.
- The high cost of renewable energy and how making energy more expensive would make Pennsylvania businesses less competitive and cost local jobs.
- What the PUC can do for PA residents without access to high-speed internet.
- Increasing the number of gas pipeline safety inspectors.
- The collection and dispersal of natural gas impact fees, and the installation of utility “smart meters.”
- The cost of the PUC taking over the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority and the response by customers.
- The level of investment by gas companies in upgrading pipelines delivering gas to homes.
NOTE: Wednesday’s hearings with the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission and the Department of Banking & Securities were cancelled due to inclement weather.
Department of State
Pennsylvania has undertaken reforms to reduce recidivism among offenders. I questioned department officials about required criminal background checks for former inmates seeking a state barber license, and the impact it may have on newly released job seekers.
The committee discussed the following topics with Acting Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar:
- The Administration’s mandate that counties replace voting machines, reimbursement to counties, and the makeup of the group advising the department on the issue.
- Changes to the state licensing system aimed at decreasing processing times, and help for veterans transitioning to civilian life.
- The possibility of providing voters with post-vote verification at the polls.
- The need to make the lobbying disclosure process fully-funded by fees paid by lobbyists, and eliminate the use General Fund tax dollars.
- Background checks for former inmates seeking a state barber license and the need to provide access to jobs to reduce recidivism.
- The need to review the state Election Code for updates and improvements.
PA State System of Higher Education
Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee discussed the need to reexamine the cost and mission of the State System of Higher Education with PASSHE Chancellor Dan Greenstein. Other topics of conversation included:
- How to reach additional students in light of declining PASSHE enrollment.
- The financial and accreditation challenges facing Cheyney University.
- Personnel and staffing reductions as a result of declining enrollment throughout the system.
- How PASSHE can stay relevant and give students a good return on investment.
- Ongoing efforts to improve student safety.
- Ways PASSHE is working to meet the needs of the workforce.
- Changing the way universities are advertised and marketed.
- Different strategies to prevent a future work stoppage with PASSHE faculty.
- How to improve retention and graduation rates.
- Efforts to provide greater incentives for Pennsylvania students to enroll at in-state schools.
- Regulatory reforms necessary to support PASSHE.
State Police & Homeland Security
The Appropriations Committee questioned Acting Commissioner Lieutenant Colonel Robert Evanchick and other officials about several topics:
- Proposed state fee for State Police coverage of municipalities without full-time police departments.
- The next cadet class and overall State Police complement
- The array of services PSP provides to all Pennsylvania municipalities.
- Establishment of State Police Risk and Vulnerability Assessment Teams to boost school safety, and the backlog in safety assessments.
- State Police crime lab costs and backlogs.
- Trooper overtime costs and pension costs.
- The costs and policy associated with PSP body cameras.
- Status of the new statewide public radio system and the status of an audit conducted on procurement process for the project.
- State Police efforts to combat human trafficking.
PA Emergency Management Agency & Fire Commissioner
Acting PEMA Secretary Randy Padfield and Fire Commissioner Bruce Trego were questioned about issues relating to public safety, including:
- The use of online training for volunteer firefighters to save costs and make it available to more responders.
- Providing incentives, including grant funding, to encourage volunteer fire companies to consolidate.
- The need for counseling resources for volunteer fire and EMS personnel, who often face severe trauma when responding to calls.
- The governor’s recent emergency declarations restricting commercial vehicles on major roads and the impact those closures have had on businesses that can’t get goods to market
- The use of sprinklers versus monitored smoke detectors in preventing fire-related deaths.
- Funding for disaster relief and other fund balances under PEMA that are being carried forward but are unencumbered.
Senate budget hearings resume Monday. The hearings are streamed live at SenatorScavello.com and my Facebook page.
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