Senate Weekly Session Wrap
Important Harrisburg Happenings:
New Budget Cuts Spending by $1.1 billion
For the first time in nine years, Pennsylvania has an on-time state budget that cuts state spending by $1.1 billion.
The Senate thoroughly reviewed every program, every department and every area of state spending to ensure that the financial resources of the Commonwealth are invested wisely and prudently. We identified several areas in the Department of Public Welfare and Department of Corrections where increased efficiency would provide significant savings.
As part of the fine tuning process, we increased basic education spending by more than $250 million from Governor Corbett's request. The budget also provides substantial increases in funding for higher education over the Governor's original request.
State Budget Includes Major Welfare Reform Provision
One bill in the state budget package specifically targets fraud, waste and abuse in the state's public welfare system.
House Bill 960 – which was enacted as the Welfare Code – sets up a new fraud detection and income verification system within the Department of Public Welfare (DPW). It also requires random drug screenings for public assistance recipients convicted of drug-related felonies. Another major reform ends "benefit shopping," where people apply for welfare benefits in a county other than the one in which they live in order to receive higher benefit payments. Under HB 960, applicants receive benefits based on where they live.
Bill Would Limit State-Funded Transportation to Methadone Clinics
The Senate approved legislation on June 27, 2011 that enacts commonsense limits on transportation for methadone clients who are part of the Medicaid Transportation program. Under Senate Bill 638, individuals receiving payments for mileage reimbursements or using public transportation would be required to go to the clinic closest to their residence.
Currently, methadone recipients choose their preferred service location and the cost of the transportation is paid with tax dollars. Transportation costs totaled $32.5 million in 2009-10, an increase of 26.3 percent from 2007-08. More than one in three trips paid for through the Medical Assistance Transportation Program (MATP) is for methadone maintenance. SB 638 is expected to produce at least $1.8 million in savings.
The bill is now before the House Health Committee for consideration.
PennWatch Act Signed by Governor
Following approval by both the Senate and House of Representatives, Governor Tom Corbett signed into law a measure, which is a companion to legislation (Senate Bill 105) I introduced to expand the public's access to state spending records.
House Bill 15 (Act 18 of 2011), introduced by Representative Jim Christiana (R-15) and also known as the Pennsylvania Web Accountability and Transparency (PennWatch) Act, directs the Governor's Office of Administration to create and maintain a searchable budget database-driven website that the public can access by the end of 2012.
This proposal is a follow-up to government reform measures already approved by the General Assembly and the rules adopted by the Senate. We have taken major steps to improve the way we disclose information to the residents of the Commonwealth. I believe the searchable database created by this legislation will provide transparency to state spending and is another important and essential move in our efforts to increase accountability in state government.
Under the provisions of Act 18 of 2011, the "PennWatch" website will provide annual appropriation and expenditure information for all Commonwealth agencies. The website will also identify vendors, the amount of funds they receive and the state agency initiating the funding action or expenditure.
The legislation also requires:
Giving Residents More Control over School Tax Hikes
Legislation giving voters more control over school tax increases was approved by the General Assembly as part of the bills associated with the new state budget and signed into law by the Governor. Senate Bill 330 (Act 25 of 2011) dramatically reduces the list of exemptions that school districts can use to increase taxes over a set level without voter approval.
Act 1 of 2006 requires a voter referendum in cases where a school district wants a property tax increase that exceeds the rate of the consumer price index. There have been 14 voter referendums since then and only one received approval. At the same time, school districts have applied for more than 1,600 exemptions from the Pennsylvania Department of Education and only a handful of those claims were denied.
Governor Corbett Signs Fair Share, Castle Doctrine into Law
In addition to the state budget package, Governor Tom Corbett signed a number of bills into law during the week of June 27th including the Fair Share and Castle Doctrine measures. The new laws include:
Act 17 of 2011, the Fair Share Act, provides that defendants only pay their proportional share of a civil verdict. Only defendants held more than 60 percent liable in a claim can now be legally responsible for up to 100 percent of the damages. Otherwise, defendants are held responsible for no more than their proportionate share of the damages. Previously, parties found even 1 percent liable in a civil suit could be held 100 percent financially responsible. The result was that litigants often sued companies with "deep pockets." That practice put Pennsylvania at an economic disadvantage with regard to attracting, creating and retaining jobs.
Act 10 of 2011, the Castle Doctrine law, removes the "duty to retreat" clause when an individual is threatened by an attacker in any place that individual has a right to be, including the individual's home or vehicle. The bill provides important protections against criminal prosecution or civil litigation for those who act in self-defense.
Act 11 of 2011 makes several changes to Pennsylvania's Liquor Code. It updates rules regarding "happy hours," off-premises catering for licensees and entertainment during extended food hours offered in licensed taverns and restaurants.
Four new laws would allow local governments to take advantage of electronic auction sites when selling property. Prior to the bills' enactment, state law required local governments to sell property such as equipment and vehicles by advertising for sealed bids in the newspaper. In 2006, the General Assembly granted this same authority to Second Class Townships. The new laws are: Act 12 of 2011 – boroughs; Act 13 of 2011 – incorporated towns; Act 14 of 2011 – first class townships; and, Act 15 of 2011 – third class cities.
House Bill 385 enacts the Honor and Remember Flag Act to adopt the Honor and Remember Flag as the Commonwealth's emblem of the service and sacrifice of the brave men and women of the United States Armed Forces who have given their lives in the line of duty. The bill also directs the Department of General Services to place the Honor and Remember Flag in Soldiers' Grove.
House Bill 440 expands the availability of workers' compensation coverage to small businesses. The new law authorizes insurers, including the State Workers' Insurance Fund, or SWIF, to voluntarily provide workers' compensation coverage to sole proprietors, partners in partnerships and members of limited liability companies.
Firefighter Cancer Bill Sent to Governor
The Legislature approved House Bill 797, legislation designating cancer as an occupational disease for firefighters, and sent the bill to Governor Tom Corbett for his signature. Under the bill, firefighters can receive workers' compensation if they develop cancer and can establish direct exposure to certain carcinogens at fire or hazmat incidents.
To be eligible for workers' compensation, the firefighter would have to have participated in continuous firefighting duty for four or more years and have successfully passed a cancer-free physical exam prior to asserting the claim or engaging in firefighting duties. A similar measure was vetoed in 2010 by Governor Rendell. Governor Corbett has said he will sign the measure.
Senate Confirms PUC Nominee
The Senate unanimously confirmed the nomination of Pamela A. Witmer of Hummelstown, Dauphin County, to serve on the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission. Witmer most recently led the energy and environment practice for Harrisburg-based Bravo Group, a governmental and public relations firm. She formerly served as a legislative liaison for the Department of Environmental Protection under Gov. Tom Ridge. Witmer holds a bachelor's degree in public service from Penn State.