I am disappointed with the results

Article posted on March 31, 2015

Post for Tuesday, March 31, 2015:

Today we heard from the Secretary of Revenue, the PA Historic and Museum Commission, the Secretary of Transportation, and the Secretary of Agriculture. I started the questioning with the Revenue Secretary by telling her that we have had many questions deflected by other Secretaries who said they didn’t know specifically how a new tax proposal worked and that we would have to ask Revenue. Well, we didn’t get many more answers this morning. This theme has become a topic of conversation in the building. The press writes about a nugget of information that surfaces from time to time, but for the hours of questioning, the real answers are few and far between and most of the witness’ time is spent talking about the popular aspects of a given program. So, as a new member of the Appropriations Committee, I am disappointed with the results I see after all of the work put into the hearings.

-John

I don’t think anyone fell for that one

Article posted on March 30, 2015

We started our final week of hearings with the Dept. of Education, the Dept. of Labor and Industry, and the Dept. of Banking and Securities. The Education budget is the largest segment of the General Fund. The Governor’s education budget proposes spending increases, many of them very large, in virtually every budget line. The Senate and House leadership sent out a letter to the school districts telling them not to count on this level of funding. The legislature will never pass the Governor’s proposal, not even a majority of the Democrats will vote for it. Secondly, even if the new taxes and existing tax increases were to pass, they wouldn’t generate that much money. One comment from the Secretary today that I’ve heard before was about the single largest cost driver for school budgets, their pension obligation. He then went on to say that this money is not considered money in the classroom. Well, this money is for the teacher in the classroom and so is the money spent on the teacher’s other benefits and salary. Personnel are by far the largest cost of a classroom. Comments like this are used to redefine what is considered classroom costs and ask for more money because the teacher’s salary and benefits somehow don’t exist. I don’t think anyone fell for that one, at least on our side of the aisle.

-John

Really no surprise

Article posted on March 29, 2015

I didn’t see much of interest in the papers today. I thought there would be followup from the Approps hearings, but nothing like that appeared in my news clips. Speaking of the hearings, we start our third and final week of them tomorrow morning. So far, we’ve heard consistently that pension costs are the single biggest cost driver for operating budgets, which was no surprise to anyone who follows the news. We had varying degrees of forthright answers from our testifiers, which again was no surprise. And each department towed the administration’s line in their answers, which is really no surprise.

-John

I’m sure the public sector unions will argue against it

Article posted on March 28, 2015

The Senate plans to introduce a pension reform bill when we go back into session in April. The bill will be assigned to the Finance Committee, chaired by yours truly. The bill’s sponsor is still working on language, but generally, it will address the plan design by putting new hires into a defined contribution plan and might include changing the benefits of current enrollees. Of course, retirees will not see any change to their pension. Despite the fact that our pension funds rank the second worst in funding nationally, and the obligation is consuming such a significant part of the state’s and school districts’ budgets that other budget lines are suffering, and that payouts at the current benefit level might totally deplete the accounts, I’m confident the public sector unions will argue against supporting the bill and put the interests of their members ahead of the public good, which is, by definition, what they do everyday.

-John

Diverting the debate is easier than formulating a factual argument

Article posted on March 27, 2015

Yesterday afternoon, I had to leave the Appropriations hearing after I spoke with Secretary Cortes to drive to Altoona for a speaking engagement. According to news reports, after I left, one of the Democrats on the committee, Senator Sean Wiley, complained that I used the words “pro-abortion” in my questions. I’ve noticed a pattern from my colleagues on the other side of the aisle. They are apparently very sensitive and easily offended by comments from Republicans. On the floor of the Senate, they often interrupt our caucus members to object to words used to attack their views. Recently, their floor leader, Senator Jay Costa, interrupted my introduction of the payroll protection bill because I used the words “union boss.” I don’t remember any Republican acting that way even after sitting through hours of animated, caustic Democrat speeches against our former Governor or his policies. Diverting the debate to another issue is much easier than formulating a factual argument.

-John

He didn’t like being challenged on this issue

Article posted on March 26, 2015

Today we heard from the Dept. of Human Services (formerly DPW), the Dept. of Community and Economic Development, and the Dept. of State. The Secretary of State and I had a somewhat heated exchange late this afternoon over his ability to manage his department’s employees. He was the Secretary of this department during the Rendell administration and during that time, the Kermit Gosnell Clinic story came to light. The Dept. of State’s responsibility includes professional licensure for physicians. Despite many complaints over the years, the department’s investigators either dismissed the complaints concerning this clinic outright or dismissed them after what appears to be a cursory review. The Grand Jury Report on the clinic blamed the department for their lack of action. The Secretary is saying in defense of the failure of his department that a ruling in a PA Supreme Court case prohibits him from engaging in the supervision of these investigators because the Medical Board that decides the outcomes of the complaints is under the umbrella of his department and that commingling both activities violates the physician’s due process rights. After looking at the decision in the case and consulting legal counsel in the Senate, I don’t agree with his legal opinion. The Secretary himself does not sit on the Medical Board and cannot commingle his supervision or involvement with an investigation and a decision on that same matter because he doesn’t make the decision. This concerns me that he cannot adequately supervise staff within his own department, not just with the Medical Board, but with all of the 29 boards included under the Bureau of Professional Licensure. He didn’t like being challenged on this issue, but it was important to raise it.

-John

He is a very gracious host

Article posted on March 25, 2015

Today’s guests at the Approps hearings included the DEP, Dept. of Corrections and Office of Probation and Parole, and the PLCB. We had a lively back and forth with the DEP Secretary about permits and money spent for “alternative energy.” And this afternoon’s questions to the three PLCB members included questions about their ability to pay a much higher figure to the state than they can afford, privatization, cost of employees and modernization efforts. We learned that the store clerk’s benefit packages this year cost more to the PLCB than the employee’s salary and their increase in sales revenue is not keeping pace with their increased costs. This is not a trend that can continue. The Governor invited the Senate Appropriations Committee to the mansion for dinner tonight. Despite political differences, everyone had a nice time. He is a very gracious host.

-John

Our Senate attorneys will take a look

Article posted on March 24, 2015

Today before the committee we had the Secretary of Aging, Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, and the four “State-Related” universities – Penn State, Pitt, Temple and Lincoln. Thaddeus Stevens had an impressive record of placement for the graduates of their two-year vocational program, 95%. Their kids have almost no student loan debt when they graduate and their average starting salary is over $50,000. Most of the conversation this afternoon was with Penn State President Eric Barron. In addition to budget issues, he fielded numerous questions about Bill Ayers from the Weather Underground. Ayers was approved to be a speaker at the university by a group of students. As outrage grew about this man’s appearance (based on his past involvement in the bombings of the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon, and possible killing of innocent citizens), the school stated that they could not stop his visit. They explained today that there is a U.S. Supreme Court case that protects the students’ decisions on matters where just student fees are used. I asked Dr. Barron after the hearing to give me the citation for the Supreme Court case; our Senate attorneys will take a look and see if they have the same opinion.

-John

It was good to see everyone

Article posted on March 23, 2015

The people testifying today included the Public Utility Commission, SERS and PSERS (the state’s two pension programs), and the Dept. of Health. To me, the most interesting comments came in the afternoon. The retirement people said that their cost is lower and the plan is healthier if the benefits are less generous (something the unions have misrepresented), they also didn’t seem to care about how the $3 Billion Pension Obligation Bond deal worked out in the long run since they get the money and the taxpayers are on the hook to pay it back. The Secretary of Health said that she was interested in discussing the clinic ideas that I have worked on with Dr. Zane Gates. It’s important to be willing to look at innovative ways to provide better and less expensive medical care. I was pleased with that. I travelled to McConnellsburg tonight for a Friends of Meadow Grounds Lake meeting with the Fish Commission. It was good to see everyone.

-John

It’s a horrendous idea

Article posted on March 22, 2015

The state’s newspapers had stories today about the State Police Commissioner controversy and possible recall that I wrote about last night. Judging by the stories, things don’t look too good for Mr. Brown. There were several pieces on how poorly the tax increases proposed by the Governor were being received by the General Assembly. I have said before that even a majority of the Democrats wouldn’t vote for his budget. I read another story about his plan to borrow $3 Billion under a Pension Obligation Bond. Everything I’ve seen from the people who write about financial news, including the writer of this story, says that it is a very bad idea for multiple reasons. I told the Budget Secretary that last week and asked him if this additional debt would improve our financial rating; he simply said, “no.” From what I’ve read, this is a bad idea, period. And if the $3 Billion doesn’t significantly reduce our unfunded liability, it’s a horrendous idea.

-John