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Senator Scott Wagner

 

As I reported on Monday, the Senate Appropriations Committee began three weeks of budget hearings on Governor Tom Wolf’s proposed 2016-17 state budget. Below is a recap of the first week of hearing testimony, my questions to department heads, and video of each hearing.

If you are interested in watching the next two weeks of hearings live, be sure to check out the schedule and tune in at www.pasenategop.com.


MONDAY, FEBRUARY 22, 2016

Governor’s Office/Governor’s Budget Office/Executive Offices

(2015-16 Appropriations)

2/22/16 - Budget Hearing Questions: Budget Secretary (2015-16 Budget)

During the first of two hearings with Budget Secretary Randy Albright, I questioned the Secretary about the Commonwealth’s financial state and education cost drivers. Particularly, I quizzed Albright on the average cost for a teacher and counter-argued the Governor’s claim that 23,000 teachers would be laid off if the budget doesn’t include the Governor’s level of education funding. I concluded with asking Albright about a recent audit of the Pittsburgh School District.

Other Committee members also questioned Secretary Albright about Governor Wolf’s threatened huge cuts in education, despite the General Assembly’s appropriation increasing funding for every school line item in 2015-16 budget. Other topics included:

  • The Governor’s vetoing Legislature-approved appropriations but then seeking funds from the Treasury.
  • The Administration’s continued claim of “a billion dollar education cut.”
  • Schools potentially closing in March or April due to the Governor’s veto of $3 billion in education funding.
  • Critical care access hospitals facing closings due to Governor Wolf’s veto of funding.
  • The Administration’s plan to spend $200 million more than the Independent Fiscal Office projects in revenue.
  • The need for cost efficiencies at state government and school districts.
  • Statistics showing that academic performance is not based on how much tax money spent but how it is spent.
  • The proposal to merge the Corrections Department with Probation and Parole

Full Hearing Video

(2016-17 Budget)

2/22/16 - Budget Hearing Questions: Budget Secretary (2016-17 Budget)

I began the second hearing with Secretary Albright by asking what the administration has done to address the pension crisis through changes to pension fund management. I then asked some pointed questions about the Philadelphia School District, the $100,000 club (state employees with a salary over $100,000), and a proposed increase for the Department of Human Services.

Other topics covered by the committee included:

  • Pennsylvania casinos facing new taxes on top of existing high taxes.
  • The need to consider zero-based budgeting.
  • The feasibility of the Independent Fiscal Office analyzing the cost of collective bargaining agreements and their impact on the budget.
  • The reliability of Marcellus Shale severance tax revenue estimates amid an industry downturn.
  • The problem of skyrocketing pension costs taking money out of classrooms.

Full Hearing Video

Independent Fiscal Office

2/22/16 - Budget Hearing Questions: Independent Fiscal Office

Independent Fiscal Office (IFO) Director Matthew Knittel and I discussed the fact that the rate of inflation is negative while the growth of revenue is two percent. I pointed out that this should result in a windfall of money to address problems like the pension debt.

Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee discussed the need to address spending and cost-drivers in the budget during a hearing with Independent Fiscal Office (IFO) Executive Director Matt Knittel.

Other topics discussed during the hearing included:

  • The economic impact of Governor’s Wolf’s proposed tax increases and how they will affect seniors and middle-class working families.
  • Pension costs and long-term budget impacts of pension debt.
  • The effect of Pennsylvania’s demographics on long-term budget projections.
  • Projected economic activity and job growth over the next several years.
  • The possibility of the IFO taking on some of the responsibilities of the Public Employee Retirement Commission.
  • Potential reductions in revenues from the Marcellus Shale Impact Fee.
  • The impact of a minimum wage increase on employment.
  • Projected growth in lottery revenue compared to the services funded by lottery proceeds.

Full Hearing Video

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 23, 2016

Judiciary

2/23/16 - Budget Hearing Questions: Judiciary

During a hearing with representatives from the judicial branch, I made several requests for data. First, I asked for a spreadsheet detailing how they have reduced costs over the last eight years. Additionally, I asked for a list of retired judicial employees receiving a pension and projections of turnover in the next five years of judges that will reach retirement age.

Justice Max Baer and Justice Debra McCloskey Todd were among court representatives that answered questions on a variety of issues related to Pennsylvania’s judicial system including:

  • Efforts to keep children out of foster care and in homes.
  • The high number of juvenile lifers in Pennsylvania and what role the Legislature should play in court challenges to those sentences.
  • How judicial vacancies are filled at the local level.
  • The effectiveness of special veterans courts in reducing recidivism and saving money.
  • Cost-cutting measures being implemented internally, including bans on out-of-state travel.
  • The impact of health care, retirement and pension costs on budget increases and actual dollar figures per year associated with them.
  • A status report on efforts to unify computerized functions in the judiciary, the costs associated with them and concerns about whether they are reaching too far.
  • An ongoing study of judges’ caseloads by county and the rationale in determining how many magisterial district judges are located in each area.
  • The growing incidence of elder abuse.
  • The need to make Pennsylvania better at handling commerce and business law cases.
  • The level of transparency regarding judicial salaries.

Full Hearing Video

Treasury

2/23/16 - Budget Hearing Questions: Treasury

I questioned Treasurer Timothy Reese on whether or not he believed it would be possible to not replace people in his department that will retire in the next five years and instead train the remaining staffers and give them the tools and technology needed to efficiently do the job. I also commended Treasurer Reese for bringing an outside business perspective and leadership skills.

The Wolf Administration’s questionable spending during the budget impasse was the main topic of discussion during the Senate Appropriations Committee’s hearing with the Pennsylvania Treasurer.

Other topics discussed during the hearing included:

  • The potential consequences of unauthorized spending on future budget debates.
  • Spending practices in other states during a budget impasse.
  • The status of state investments and investment strategies.
  • Changes to the time frame for recovering unclaimed property.
  • Measures to improve efficiency and save taxpayer dollars.
  • New methods to support small business growth and development.

Full Hearing Video

Auditor General

2/23/16 - Budget Hearing Questions: Auditor General

On the heels of an eye-opening audit of the Pittsburgh School District where $129 million was found to have gone unreported, I inquired about when the Auditor General anticipates releasing the findings of his audit of the Philadelphia School District. Additionally, I requested a list of all of the school district audits conducted in the last year, and the Auditor General and I discussed a potential audit of the Department of Corrections’ overtime costs.

The panel asked Auditor General Eugene DePasquale about several audits currently being conducted by the office. Discussions included:

  • The potential for the Auditor General’s Office to do the work of the Public Employee Retirement Commission facing closure by Governor Wolf.
  • The financial threat posed by ailing municipal pension plans.
  • The fate of school districts that are running out of money due to the Governor’s veto of $3 billion in education funding.
  • The final phase-in of technology funding for Auditor General’s Office.
  • The need for the Auditor General to be allowed to audit municipal authorities.
  • How the state can alert taxpayers to school district cash balances.
  • The status of audits of 26 correctional facilities.
  • The need to trim pension management fees while not sacrificing investment returns.

Full Hearing Video

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 24, 2016

Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

2/24/16 - Budget Hearing Questions: DCNR

Secretary Cindy Dunn fielded my questions regarding the leasing of 80 acres of land under the Allegheny River at a cost of $4,000 an acre. I also asked about capital improvement money, and requested a copy of DCNR’s list outlining five years of projects that total $800 million. I also noted how the Governor’s blue line veto affected valuable Heritage Areas, while waste and fraud are rampant in other areas of our state government.

The Senate Appropriations Committee sought details on Department of Conservation and Natural Resources funding requests. Topics included:

  • Declining oil and gas lease revenue and the possibility of opening additional land to leasing.
  • Plans for DCNR to purchase more land.
  • The importance of Act 13 natural gas development impact fee revenue.
  • ATV riding trails, ATV fatalities and the number of youth safety instructors.
  • The performance of the Deer Management Assistance Program and its impact on hunting.
  • The need for more information on the department’s request for $2.5M for the Pennsylvania Conservation Corps.
  • Ideas for attracting more visitors to state parks and forests.
  • The Administration’s plan to raise waste haul tipping fees to fund DCNR programs.

Full Hearing Video

State Police/Homeland Security

2/24/16 - Budget Hearing Questions: State Police

I raised several major issues with State Police Commissioner Colonel Tyree Blocker including, the cost of state police coverage for local municipalities, the impact the heroin crisis is having on the workload of state troopers, and the radio communication system, which has cost taxpayers $1 billion thus far and doesn’t work.

Commissioner Blocker provided an update on the cadet class cheating investigation at the State Police Academy.

Other issues discussed during the hearing included:

  • Funding for future cadet classes.
  • Current and projected complement of troopers and the impact of impending retirements.
  • Police use of body cameras.
  • The number of troopers assigned to Gaming Enforcement in casinos.
  • Potential changes to Pennsylvania’s Amber Alert system.
  • A new electronic records management system.
  • Local law enforcement use of radar.
  • The backlog in DNA testing for criminal cases.
  • The recent massive traffic accident on Interstate 78.

Full Hearing Video

Drug and Alcohol Programs

2/24/16 - Budget Hearing Questions: Drug & Alcohol Programs

Secretary Gary Tennis and I discussed the heroin epidemic, the work the Department is doing to address it, and its effect on York County and the Commonwealth. Secretary Tennis also made a plea to individuals with painkillers in their medicine cabinet to get rid of them when they are done with them to prevent pills from getting into the wrong hands.

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:

  • Medical and follow-up care for individuals with drug and alcohol addictions.
  • The use of Vivitrol (naloxone) in drug overdose and abuse treatment.
  • The potential benefits of criminal justice reform pertaining to drug crimes.
  • Costs associated with drug abuse.
  • Resources for police departments and other groups to combat the drug epidemic.
  • Public outreach and awareness efforts to combat drug abuse.
  • Follow-up care for patients after an overdose.
  • The effectiveness of prescription drug take-back programs.
  • Initiatives to combat gambling addiction.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and drug addiction among veterans.
  • Recovery schools for students being treated for addiction.

Full Hearing Video

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 25, 2016

Department of Environmental Protection

2/25/16 - Budget Hearing Questions: DEP

I requested a list from DEP Secretary John Quigley of initiatives that the Department has or plans to implement in order to reduce costs and improve efficiencies. I also requested a list of engineering firms and the ratings that the Department has given to these firms, and questioned what is being done to reduce costs in the Nutrient Trading Program.

Senate Appropriations Committee members questioned DEP Secretary Quigley about his department planning to implement new federal clean power regulations despite being stayed by a court ruling. Other topics included:

  • The possibility of a “Growing Greener III” initiative to pay for the clean-up of the Chesapeake Bay.
  • The possibility of extending drill permits to boost natural gas development.
  • The proposed Marcellus Shale tax and the existing community impact fee.
  • The need for ongoing public-private cooperation in coal refuse fired plants and mine reclamation.
  • Efforts to help municipalities reduce groundwater runoff.
  • The financial challenge facing the Hazardous Site Cleanup Fund and the Underground Storage Tank Fund.

Full Hearing Video

Department of Community and Economic Development

2/25/16 - Budget Hearing Questions: DCED

During the DCED budget hearing, I took the opportunity to ask Secretary Dennis Davin about the legislative proposal to allow York County to increase its hotel tax from 3 percent to 5 percent. We went on to discuss Pennsylvania’s business climate and the need to address the skilled labor crisis.

Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee questioned DCED Secretary Davin regarding the impact of funding delays created by the governor’s budget vetoes.

Other topics included:

  • Opportunities to create and retain manufacturing jobs.
  • Ways to make Pennsylvania more business-friendly to attract employers.
  • Ways to leverage public-private partnerships to increase tourism and attract new businesses to the state.
  • The possibility of further military base closures in Pennsylvania.
  • The impact of the natural gas industry on economic development and job growth.
  • The cost and benefits of weatherization programs.

Full Hearing Video

Attorney General

The Senate Appropriations Committee closed out its first week of budget hearings by focusing on the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) with Attorney General Kathleen Kane. I yielded my time to other members.

Topics discussed during the hearing included:

  • The OAG’s Child Predator Unit.
  • Mandatory minimum sentencing.
  • Pennsylvania’s war on drugs.
  • Funding for outside counsel.
  • Act 191 of 2014, which created a prescription drug monitoring system.
  • OAG’s Mobile Street Crimes Unit.
  • OAG staffing levels and pension obligations.

Full Hearing Video


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