On Monday, the House Appropriations Committee held three budget hearings. The first was with Secretary Patrick McDonnell of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Secretary McDonnell explained that the proposed 5.5 percent increase in DEP’s budget is mostly due to 33 new positions being added. DEP hopes this will help make the permit review process more efficient and expedite the time it takes to approve a permit. In addition, McDonnell discussed issues including the future of solar energy in the Commonwealth and safe drinking water.
The second House budget hearing on Monday was on the topic of career and technical education. Testifiers included representatives from Thaddeus Stevens College, Lancaster County Career and Technical Center, Pennsylvania Association of Career and Technical Administrators, and the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges. The Governor proposed an additional $50 million for career and technical education, including funding for the newly established PAsmart initiative. The goal of the program is to strengthen and align workforce efforts across state agencies by growing STEM computer science and related education, modernizing Pennsylvania’s workforce and promoting employer engagement in post-secondary education. Finishing up the day was Russell Redding, Secretary of the Department of Agriculture. Secretary Redding answered questions about the dairy industrial, animal and food safety, and industrial hemp research, among other topics. Secretary Redding provided similar testimony on Wednesday at the Senate budget hearing.
The Senate had a busy start to the week as well. First up was the Department of Labor and Industry. Secretary Jerry Oleksiak provided an update on the Unemployment Compensation system, discussed the issue of the minimum wage, and the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. Following Labor and Industry was the Department of General Services, where Secretary Curt Topper was asked about state-owned property, diversity and inclusion in the procurement process, and background checks. Lastly, Secretary of the Department of Transportation, Leslie Richards, informed Senate Appropriations Committee members on the roll out of the REAL ID program, new highway and bridge construction, and topics involving mass transit.
On Tuesday, the House heard from John Wetzel, Secretary of the Department of Corrections, and Leo Dunn, Chairman of the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. Secretary Wetzel stated that he does not anticipate another prison closure and that prison population in general is projected to go down. The Senate heard similar testimony from Wetzel and Dunn on Thursday. The next House budget hearing was with Secretary of the Office of Administration, Sharon Minnich. Secretary Minnich provided an overview of her agency’s role in information technology and cybersecurity and how they are investing in new processes and systems to modernize the state’s technology.
In the Senate, presidents of the state’s four state-related universities (Penn State University, University of Pittsburgh, Temple University and Lincoln University) testified at a Senate budget hearing. They discussed their tuition and attendance rates and how they are preparing their students for the workforce. The Senate then held a budget hearing with the judiciary. Issues discussed ranged from the courts’ handling of individuals affected by the opioid epidemic, specialty courts and redistricting. Next up was the Pennsylvania College of Technology, who is projected to receive about a $2 million increase. President Dr. Davie Jane Gilmour noted that graduates have a 96 percent placement rate and that the college of technology gets students ready for jobs in growing industries. Lastly, the Inspector General Bruce Beemer outlined and answered questions on the duties of his office, which include reviewing conduct, agency program reviews and background checks.
On Wednesday, Department of General Services Secretary Curt Topper testified at a House budget hearing where the topic de jour was the Farm Show Complex. Last year, the Governor was given the authority to enter into a lease-leaseback agreement for the property. However, now some legislators believe that the financing agreement the Governor entered into was outside his purview and will lead to borrowing of more than $200 million. Following DGS was the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB). Executive Director Charlie Mooney discussed flexible pricing, online sales and the future of the PLCB’s payment into the General Fund. The upper chamber held similar discussions on Thursday during their budget hearing. The Senate heard from Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Secretary Cindy Dunn. Secretary Dunn mainly talked about natural gas drilling on state-owned land and potential funding opportunities.
Budget hearings continued in both chambers on Thursday. The House Appropriations Committee focused on combating opioids in Pennsylvania. In the morning, Department of Health Executive Deputy Secretary Sarah Boateng and Acting Deputy Secretary of the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs testified. The afternoon’s hearing was with Attorney General Josh Shapiro. All three provided an update on what has already been done to fight the epidemic and where we go from here. Since the Governor’s disaster proclamation for opioids, a command center led by the Department of Health and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency has helped develop unified approaches to developing solutions.
The week ended in the Senate like it began in the House, with a budget hearing with DEP. On the issue of natural gas, Secretary McDonnell was asked about the proposed increase in well permit fees, the e-permitting process and well plugging. He also discussed other topics such as storm water management, water contamination and the department’s use of special funds.
The Week Ahead
Budget hearings continue next week. For a full list of hearings see below:
In addition, on Tuesday, the House Commerce Committee will hold an informational meeting with the Department of Community and Economic Development to discuss their programs and budget requests.
In Other News
- Responses to the state Republicans’ bid to block the new congressional map are due to the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday.
- Rep. Kathy Rapp (R-Warren) was selected to chair the House Health Committee after former Chair Rep. Matt Baker (R-Tioga) resigned to pursue a position in the federal government.
- Ed Pawlowski, Mayor of Allentown, was convicted on 47 corruption charges.
- The Republican candidates for Governor faced off in a debate.
- Pennsylvania announced new grants to support the beer industry.