Senate Weekly Session Wrap
Important Harrisburg Happenings:
Governor Releases Higher Education Funding
Governor Rendell released funding for Pennsylvania's four state-related universities on Thursday following final legislative approval of the bills. The state House voted late Monday evening to release the state funding totaling nearly $700 million for Penn State, Pitt, Temple and Lincoln Universities. The Senate previously approved the bills in October.
The "non-preferred" funding for the schools was not included with the passage of the state's General Fund budget in October. Governor Rendell had linked the funding to passage of table games legislation.
Senate Hearing Investigates Welfare Fraud and Abuse
The Senate Majority Policy Committee and the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee held a joint public hearing Wednesday on potential fraud and abuse in state welfare programs, according to Senator Browne, a member of the Policy Committee
The hearing focused on potential fraud and abuse identified through audits undertaken by the Department of the Auditor General. An August 2009 audit found that 45 percent of the Special Allowance program payments reviewed were issued without documented justification. In January 2009, the Auditor General announced that an audit of eligibility determinations found that the Department of Public Welfare made $3.3 million in improper payments, $3.1 million of which were made to managed care firms on behalf of ineligible Medicaid recipients.
The joint committee heard from Auditor General Jack Wagner and Secretary of Public Welfare Estelle Richman. On the matter of Special Allowance – which allow welfare recipients to cover expenses related to finding work, such as clothing and child care – the Auditor General called for requiring receipts for all purchases, among other steps.
Senate Approves Table Games Legislation
The Senate approved legislation on Wednesday that would allow for table games in Pennsylvania casinos. The vote on concurrence was 27-22 with Senator Browne voting for the bill.
Senate Bill 711, as amended and approved by the Senate, would create a Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board review process for existing slot licensees who want to apply for a table game operation certificate. Licensees would also be required to demonstrate the number of jobs that will be created and the economic benefit to the Commonwealth, its political subdivisions and its residents.
Under the bill, each eligible Category 1 (racetracks) and Category 2 (stand alone casinos) licensee would pay a fee of $16.5 million for a table game certificate. In addition, an annual table game tax of 16 percent would be imposed, which would be deposited into the General Fund. Each table game operator would also be required to pay a local share of 2 percent of the gross table game revenue to their local community annually. Furthermore, Category 3 (resorts) would pay a one-time fee of $7.5 million.
A recent Franklin and Marshall College poll found statewide support, 63 percent to 32 percent with five percent undecided, for allowing the state's casinos to offer blackjack, roulette, craps and other table games. That number climbed even higher when those surveyed heard about the number of jobs the proposal would create.
The House deferred consideration of the bill until January.
Senate Establishes Cost-Cutting Commission
The Senate unanimously approved a measure, co-sponsored by Senator Browne, establishing a high-level bipartisan commission to identify additional cost-saving measures in state government.
Senate Resolution 161 creates a commission comprised of 10 appointees from the private and public sectors to help the Senate eliminate unnecessary government spending. The commission will also utilize Senate staff with no additional cost to the taxpayers.
The Senate resolution calls for the new commission, which will consist of six members appointed by the Senate Majority Leader and four appointed by the Senate Minority Leader, to submit its findings and recommendations to the Senate by June 30, 2010.
Senate Confirms Russell C. Redding as Agriculture Secretary
Russell C. Redding of Adams County was confirmed by the Senate as the state's 24th Secretary of Agriculture.
As Secretary, Redding oversees the Department responsible for encouraging, promoting and protecting the state's leading economic industry, agriculture, and its related industries. The Department also has regulatory authority over food safety, animal health and the state's dog laws, as well as inspection of weight and measurement devices and amusement rides.
Pennsylvania is widely recognized as one of the leading agricultural states
in the nation with more than 63,000 farms and 7.75 million acres of farmland.
Agriculture contributes more than $45 billion in total economic impact to
Pennsylvania, supplying one in seven jobs across the state.