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In this Email Update:
State budget hearings come to a close in Senate
The Senate Appropriations Committee finished its third and final week of public hearings on the state budget proposal. This week included seven separate budget hearings, including hearings with the Department of Community and Economic Development, the Department of Revenue and the Department of Human Services. The hearing also included the Governor’s Office of the Budget, which is responsible for crafting the proposed state budget.
Kaier’s Brewery to come down…finally!
Earlier this week, as crews were coming in to finally tear down one of the most blighted buildings not only in Schuylkill County but in our entire region, the brewery property shifted, threatening to collapse on its own.
Several families were relocated and a daycare was evacuated for safety. It’s an unfortunate reminder why these blighted structures that exist in many of our communities are not just eye sores – they are major safety hazards to the public.
Rep. Neal Goodman (D-Schuylkill) and I were disappointed to see a piece of local history fall into a dangerous state of disrepair, which is why we worked together to secure a state grant to assist in the demolition of the property and turn it into a community park and playground. Read more about our efforts here.
This property is also why I fought for $1.4 million in funding from the state to assist in tearing down blighted properties that pose a safety hazard to local residents. Blight is expensive for everyone – from homeowners who see their property values decline to local governments tasked with finding funds to tear down these structures.
View photos of the property coming down in the Republican Herald here.
Governor finds $300M for Philadelphia Port; won’t use economic development tools for smaller communities
During several state budget hearings this week, I raised the issue over why the governor is not utilizing certain economic development tools passed by the legislature on a strong, bipartisan basis which he then signed into law. Specifically, the governor signed a law to strengthen an existing program known as the City Revitalization and Improvement Zone program (CRIZ) as well as a law allowing for the expansion of the Keystone Opportunity Zone program (KOZ).
I reminded the Department of Community and Economic Development of their goal, which is “to foster opportunities for businesses to grow and for communities to succeed and thrive.”
Since the 1950s, our smaller communities, including many third class cities, have been on a rapid population decline. Cities like Pottsville and Reading are struggling. My question to Secretary Davin highlighted his department’s claim on its website regarding the KOZ program, which is “KOZs are such a breakthrough idea that Business Facilities magazine calls them the number one economic development strategy in the nation.” Given that statement on the department’s website, why is the governor not approving any additional KOZs at this time?
If we cannot approve new KOZs to grow the economy in Pennsylvania, perhaps he should support Senate Bill 76, which would remove school property taxes for all properties – essentially turning the entire state into a KOZ.
I asked about this as well as the fact the governor could have selected four new communities to participate in the CRIZ program.
I can’t believe the governor wants to see Aliquippa or Johnstown or Pottsville just DROP DEAD. We know what the governor is against but what’s he for to help these struggling communities?
During the hearing with the Office of the Budget on Thursday, I asked Secretary Albright how the governor was able to find $300 million in funding for the Port of Philadelphia, yet he cannot find $5.8 million for the CRIZ and KOZ programs that could aid communities of all sizes across the state.
State government at work: asking deceased residents to apply for food stamps?
During Wednesday’s state budget hearing, I asked the Department of Aging why my father, who passed away in 2015, received two separate letters from the state a year after his death encouraging him to apply for food stamps.
Since I raised these issues earlier this week, others have provided me with similar examples. This is a prime example of a wasteful bureaucracy at its very worst. You can see part of the letter addressed to my father below.
Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale identified over 2,300 cases where deceased individuals were receiving welfare benefits, along with evidence that EBT cards issued in Pennsylvania were used in all 50 states over a 3 year period.
This sort of wasteful spending needs to stop NOW!
Governor’s budget highlights $1.2M saved by each welfare fraud investigator…
Yet his cabinet secretaries will not indicate whether or not they support my bill, which would require the Office of Inspector General to hire additional welfare fraud investigators.
Both the governor’s budget book detailing his budget proposal, as well as the most recent annual report by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) highlight annual savings over $1.2 million per welfare fraud investigator within the OIG. I’ve recently introduced Senate Bill 425 that would require the state to hire more investigators with a sole purpose: find the welfare fraud.
The governor vetoed a proposal last year that included this initiative. I asked Secretary Dallas of the Department of Human Services if the governor would support this measure given the overwhelming savings to taxpayers for each case of welfare fraud an investigator is able to detect.
Hamburg Center closure should not follow in footsteps of Harrisburg State Hospital closure
During Wednesday’s hearing with the Department of Human Services, I asked about the Harrisburg State Hospital and lessons learned from that ongoing experience. The Harrisburg State Hospital closed down nearly 10 years ago, however, it’s still not sold. Taxpayers are paying at least $5 million annually to maintain it. Now that the state is opting to close the Hamburg State Center, we obviously don’t want to have the Hamburg Center vacant for 10 years. How can taxpayers be assured that the property will not sit vacant for decades? Watch Secretary Dallas’ response below.
Willow Creek Elementary visits state Capitol
On Tuesday, I had the distinct pleasure to meet with some of the younger residents of the 29th Senatorial District. Willow Creek Elementary students, teachers and parents were in Harrisburg to tour the state Capitol. During their visit, I met with them on the state Senate floor. Willow Creek Elementary is part of the Fleetwood Area School District.
State closing in on 100 percent of scrap tires cleaned up
Thursday’s Senate Appropriations Committee state budget hearing included the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). During the hearing, I asked about efforts as a result of a law I authored titled the “Waste Tire Recycling Act.”
Over the last 20 years, DEP successfully cleaned up 97 percent of Pennsylvania’s waste tires. According to DEP, 28.1 million waste tires have been cleaned up.
I asked Acting Secretary McDonnell for an update on the state’s progress to get us to 100 percent total cleanup. Watch below.
The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania highlighted efforts in rural counties to clean up scrap tires along roadways and in our waterways. Several counties have created competitions to join in the effort to remove these illegally dumped tires and recycle them properly.
You can read the story here.
Saving tax dollars through merging health care plans for public school employees
During Tuesday’s hearing with the Department of Education, I thanked Secretary Rivera for providing the governor with technical assistance in trying to find a way forward to eliminate school property taxes. Those conversations and efforts are still ongoing – but we agree that school property tax elimination – not reform – is the best way forward.
That is major progress!
I asked the Secretary about a plan I’ve sponsored that would require school districts to join regional consortia to purchase health care for their employees. This could save hundreds of millions of dollars annually for taxpayers and, more importantly, remove one of the biggest cost drivers leading to hikes in school property taxes every year.
PA museums doing more with less
In 2007, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) received $30.6 million from the state’s General Fund. For their 2017 budget, they could receive $19.6 million, which represents a 36 percent cut. This is much more than any other agency over that same time period.
I asked PHMC what other agencies can learn from their experience with these budget reductions.
Learn more about how PHMC has been able to make the most of the tax dollars they receive in the video below.
Did you miss any budget hearings? You’re covered
I’ve created a one-stop-shop for budget-related updates to keep you well-informed throughout this process. You can visit that page at www.SenatorArgall.com/Budget. The page contains links to the governor’s proposed budget as well as videos of my questions over the last three weeks.
You can also watch all of the state budget hearings in their entirety here.