HARRISBURG – Budget hearings came to an end this week, the last shot for department heads to plead their case for extra funding in front of the powerful committees that will have much to say about the state budget’s fate between now and June 30.
Gov. Tom Corbett continued to take heat for not only the budget plan and the various other agenda items he has linked to it, but also his acceptance of gifts from lobbyists and other political interests.
Pennsylvania House members, after three weeks of hearing about departmental spending plans, finally had the chance to grill Budget Secretary Charles Zogby.
It all came down to the big-ticket policy changes proposed by the administration as part of Gov. Tom Corbett’s $28.4 billion budget, which must be passed by June 30.
Funding that plan is contingent on the passage of changes to the state’s pension system, altering the amount employees and the state contribute toward two funds carrying $41 billion in liabilities. Other asterisks proceed liquor privatization and transportation infrastructure investments, which Corbett also proposed.
Democrats may be in the minority, but they’re not going along quietly. Several House Democrats, including state Rep. Steve Santarserio of Bucks County, said Thursday they aren’t sold on Corbett’s vision for next year.
“I don’t think it is responsible budgeting to present a budget that’s predicated on an outcome that may well not come to pass,” Santarserio said.
Zogby said he believed the pension reform proposal would be seen as constitutional if it were challenged in state court.
Corbett again under fire for accepting gifts, tickets
Gov. Tom Corbett and his wife, Susan, accepted more than $11,000 in gifts from business executives and lobbyists during 2010 and 2011, and Democrats have pounced on the news by filing an ethics complaint against the embattled governor.
The Philadelphia Daily News’ Will Bunch pulled together Corbett’s financial interest statements and did the math on the gov’s gifts – which included tickets to Pittsburgh Penguins and Pittsburgh Steelers games, a trip to Rhode Island, free flights on private jets and donations of clothing for the inaugural ball in 2011.
Administration officials said the governor followed the letter and the spirit of the state ethics law by disclosing the gifts and their value, but that did not stop the Democratic Party of Pennsylvania from filing an ethics complaint with the State Ethics Commission, citing the Daily News article.
Critics say the law should be strengthened to prohibit such gifts because they give certain individuals greater access to the governor and thus could influence policy decisions, even if unintentionally.
Funding for Pennsylvania’s six-year-old film tax credit program will, for the foreseeable future, stay flat, with an annual operating budget of about $60 million.
Last year, however, lawmakers adopted laws to allow the program to give out multi-year credits by appropriating money from future fiscal years. This year, the department approved $92 million in film tax credits, with $32 million coming from revenue in future years.
At a Senate Appropriations Committee budget hearing for the Department of Community and Economic Development, Secretary Alan Walker said he does not envision expanding the film tax credit beyond the recent changes.
In an annual report delivered to the General Assembly, the department said the program has awarded a total of more than $298 million to about 292 projects in its first five years. The state estimates the direct economic impact at almost $1.4 billion.
But critics see the tax credit program as little more than a giveaway to Hollywood film studios that does little to produce long-lasting or high-paying jobs in the state.
Liquor privatization vote in House scheduled for late March
House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said Tuesday a vote on his liquor privatization proposal could take place within the next month.
But how much support exists for the proposal in its current form is somewhat of a question mark.
Turzai introduced his legislation, House Bill 790, Tuesday. The legislation would enact Gov. Tom Corbett’s plan to privatize Pennsylvania’s state-controlled wine and spirits system by closing the state stores and auctioning off licenses to private retailers – including grocery stores, pharmacies, beer distributors and stand-alone liquor stores.
The first stop for the bill is the House Liquor Committee. A hearing on the proposal is scheduled for March 18.
Turzai said he anticipates moving the bill in the House on March 20 with a final passage vote the following day or on April 8.
Whatever bill the House ends up voting on is subject to change. House Liquor Committee Chairman John Taylor, R-Philadelphia, said last week he anticipates changing the governor’s proposal.
That could include changing the timetable of getting rid of state stores. Turzai’s bill outlines a four-year plan.
Some lawmakers, including Republicans and Democrats in the Senate, would rather see the state system modernized. That would include changes to the state system to make it more profitable, like expanded hours.
Amtrak line in western Pennsylvania will cost $6 million to maintain
Unless the state ponies up about $6 million to replace disappearing federal subsidies for Amtrak’s “Pennsylvanian” line — the portion of the run that connects Harrisburg to Pittsburgh — the service may be cut entirely.
The federal government subsidizes that line and requires nothing of the state, but those subsidies will be reduced next year, leaving a $6 million gap that the state will have to fill.
Pennsylvania Secretary of Transportation Barry Schoch said Wednesday the cost of subsidizing the western portion of Pennsylvania’s Amtrak line would be $27 per rider per trip.
“We don’t intend to cancel the service, but you have to look at the taxpayer dollars also,” Schoch said of the western Pennsylvania line. “Are we going to subsidize $27 per trip for a five-and-a-half hour trip?”
The windy 444-mile trip from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh had 212,000 riders in 2012, a 32.5 percent increase since 1991, according to a recent Brookings Institute report. But the line lost more than $7 million in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available.
The eastern half of the line is an entirely different story. It has seen a 220-percent increase since 1991 and had more than 1.4 million riders in 2012, making it one of the most traveled lines in the nation, according to the Brookings report.
The Department of Education received more than double the amount of teacher misconduct reports last year than it typically does, and the state is looking to up teacher certification fees to handle the backlog.
From 2008 through 2011 the department averaged 250 annual complaints. In 2012, it received 563.
Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed 2013-14 budget recommends adding $775,000 to the department’s Office of Chief Counsel to address the increase.
The money would come from a $25 increase to the $100 fee teachers pay to become certified in Pennsylvania.
In Pennsylvania, complaints with the Department of Education are filed in two circumstances: cases of criminal misconduct or non-criminal misconduct. State law spells out certain crimes in which a conviction means a teacher will automatically lose his license — such as homicide, rape or theft – but the department still handles the procedural aspects of the revocation.
In the non-criminal realm, the cases may involve inappropriate behavior, such as a teacher viewing pornography in the classroom.
Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.