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Capitolwire

Capitolwire: New Year Dawns Without Budget in Place

By: John Finnerty, Capitolwire.com Bureau Chief

HARRISBURG (July 1) – The new fiscal year started this morning without a state budget in place to pay for it and no obvious signal that the Legislature will quickly get a budget to the governor.

Late Thursday, Senate officials announced that the chamber won’t even be in session on Friday, though the Senate has plans to be in session on Saturday and Sunday. The House is scheduled to be in session Friday and Saturday, though at the close of Thursday’s session, Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, reminded members to monitor their emails for updates on session days.

Despite the annoying aggravation of having to work through the holiday weekend, the broader immediate sting of failing to meet the state budget deadline doesn’t exist anymore due to a 2009 Supreme Court decision requiring that state employees must continue to receive their paychecks even if the budget hasn’t been passed.

Rep. Stan Saylor, R-York, the Majority chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said that not having a budget in place has little, if any, immediate impact on state agencies.

Gov. Tom Wolf has been pushing for a dramatic increase in spending while Republicans have been trying to get the governor to agree to rollback controversial proposals including the bridge tolling plan (though a Commonwealth Court ruling Thursday ordered that the tolling plan be halted) and charter school regulations.

Alexis Campbell, a PennDOT spokeswoman, said that while the tolling plan has been met with objections, the administration is still waiting for lawmakers to explain how to pay for the needed bridge repairs and in the long-term replace the gas tax.

“To date, the legislature has failed to offer any solutions beyond their approval of this P3 initiative, that will assist the administration’s desire to phase out the gas tax. The Wolf Administration continues to welcome discussions with the General Assembly on alternative funding sources that can replace the gas tax, which is no longer a dependable source of funding to meet all bridge and highway needs in this commonwealth,” she said.

Republicans say they are interested in restraining Wolf’s spending proposals in order to position the state to better weather an economic slowdown.

“Senate Republicans continue to work towards a budget that invests in the people of Pennsylvania and ensures the financial stability of the Commonwealth as we face economic headwinds due to the Biden Administration’s inflationary policies,” Erica Clayton Wright, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, said in a statement released late Thursday night.

Amidst all of this, former President Donald Trump weighed in earlier this week, issuing a statement in support of a poll watcher bill sponsored by Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, and calling for Republicans to refuse to pass a budget unless it includes other election integrity changes.

Groups lobbying for election access have called for Wolf to veto Mastriano’s Senate Bill 573, and a Wolf spokeswoman strongly hinted that Wolf would veto the legislation, saying the administration “strongly opposes” the bill.

(Source: Capitolwire, July 1, 2022).

Capitolwire: Wolf Budget Proposal Spurs Debate on Mental Health Funding
By Robert Swift

HARRISBURG (Feb. 14) — A budget proposal by Gov. Tom Wolf is spurring a new debate about providing more state mental health services during this time of pandemic-related stress.

The governor proposes spending $36.6 million from the taxpayer-supported General Fund in Fiscal Year 2022-23 to restore much of a decade-old cut in state aid to county-run mental health programs.

He would also direct $75 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds for support payments to help keep and hire new employees for qualifying home and community service providers.

A 21-member Mental Health Safety Net Coalition sent a letter Monday to lawmakers asking them to consider the proposed $36.6 million increase as a starting point in budget negotiations.

“The governor’s proposed increase will help offset the loss in purchasing power due to a decade of level funding,” wrote the coalition that includes service providers, hospitals, treatment centers and professional groups. “This money is critical to help counties get back to the effective level of resources they had 10 years ago, but it does not even begin to address all the gaps in our mental health system or surging demand for mental health services as we enter the third year of the global pandemic.”

Not only has the pandemic increased demand for services, it has also led to significant health staff shortages and increases in suicides and opioid deaths, the coalition said.

Also the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania issued a statement Monday calling on lawmakers to support Wolf’s proposal. It would restore two-thirds of a 10 percent cut to the budget line item in 2012 if enacted.

“If the funding continues to be uneven with the growing demand, counties will continue to struggle to in meeting the needs of their residents,” said CCAP President and Bradford County Commissioner Daryl Miller.

A key feature of county mental health programs is they are available to the entire community regardless of income, said Brinda Penyak, CCAP deputy executive director.

CCAP made rebuilding a “crumbling” mental health system its top priority this year. For the past six decades, counties have carried the responsibility to provide and contract for a range of community-based mental health services, including crisis intervention, treatment, education and prevention.

“We would strongly support advance planning and (mental health funding) increases that are practical and sustainable to ensure increased system availability for the long term,” said Dr. Kathy Quick, executive director of the Pennsylvania Mental Health Consumer Association while voicing concern that the proposed funding hikes for this year can’t be sustained in the future.

The issue of pandemic-related mental health challenges facing the general population and students as well has been the subject of several legislative hearings during the past two years.

The Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee held a hearing last month focusing on mental health issues facing agricultural workers. Pennsylvania has received a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide more resources to support mental health programs in rural areas by linking to national hotline networks and providing education and training, said state Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding at that hearing.

Capitolwire: GOP Leader Urges PA Executive Agencies to Begin Planning to Reinstate Regulations Suspended Because of the COVID-19 Disaster Emergency

The General Assembly, thanks to the power restored to it by Pennsylvania voters, terminated Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 disaster emergency in June, which means many of the actions taken by executive agencies under the auspices of that declaration have come to an end, with others on track to end in the near future.

Hundreds of existing state regulations were waived or suspended by various Commonwealth agencies while the declaration was in effect, and even with the termination, lawmakers worked with the Wolf administration to keep nearly 500 suspended until the fall, specifically Sept. 30.

On Monday, House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, sent letters to the Department of Health and the Office of Administration reminding them the Sept. 30 deadline is coming and urging the agencies to be ready to reinstate the suspended regulations, as well as work with the legislature to identify those that could be reformed or permanently repealed.

Within that context, Benninghoff, in his letter to the Health Department, singled out telehealth regulations, stating, “Since your department does have jurisdiction relative to telehealth services provided in Pennsylvania, I want to make it clear nothing in current law prohibits telehealth services from being provided at pre-pandemic levels should the regulatory framework return to normal.”

(Source: Capitolwire, July 27, 2021)


If you have any questions, please contact Jack Phillips, Director of Government Affairs.

By Robert Swift, Staff Writer, Capitolwire

HARRISBURG (July 26) – The proposed $26 billion national opioid legal settlement creates a new pot of money that could help shape state budgets for years to come.

Pennsylvania’s share of the settlement announced last week by State Attorney General Josh Shapiro is anticipated at $1 billion provided in payments over a number of years.

A key factor determining Pennsylvania’s share is how many local governments opt to participate in the settlement and drop their own opioid lawsuits.

The settlement with Johnson & Johnson, an opioid manufacturer, and three major opioid distributors – Cardinal, McKesson and AmerisourceBergen — is designed to resolve nearly 4,000 lawsuits filed by states and local governments responding to a wave of opioid overdose deaths and addictions across the nation.

The settlement also requires the four firms to take a number of steps to prevent a future opioid crisis.

“This settlement puts in place controls that will go a long way to make sure that this never happens again, and the money that will come to Pennsylvania will help offer and expand life-saving treatment options across our Commonwealth,” said Shapiro.

Earlier this month, Shapiro announced a $4.5 billion multi-state settlement with OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma to settle lawsuits. Pennsylvania’s share from this settlement is $225 million.

The opioid settlements come two decades after Pennsylvania and a number of states reached a settlement with the tobacco industry to address the public costs of chronic health issues caused by smoking.

The new state Fiscal Code (House Bill 1348) establishes the Opioid Settlement Restricted Account from which deposited settlement money will be distributed through legislation. This account is under the state treasurer’s office.

Shapiro said a substantial amount of the second settlement money would be spent on opioid treatment and prevention.

The dollar share for each participating state is determined by a formula that includes the number of overdose deaths, number of residents with a substance abuse disorder, quantity of opioids delivered and population.

Pennsylvania reported 5,172 overdose deaths last year as the COVID-19 pandemic started.

Pennsylvania plans to sign the agreement while local governments have up to five months to sign. Pennsylvania will get its maximum share provided full participation by local governments.

The state/local distribution will depend upon an intrastate allocation agreement.

“The Wolf Administration commends the work of the Attorney General in reaching this historic settlement,” said Gov. Tom Wolf’s spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger. “We hope that states and localities will opt into the settlement so that Pennsylvania can maximize the benefits and direct new resources into mitigating the continuing damaging effects of the opioid epidemic here in the commonwealth.”

The Republican caucuses that control the General Assembly already have some ideas for targeting the money.

“The caucus leaders of the House and Senate are working with the Attorney General to determine next steps and how to best appropriate the nearly $1 billion in funds allocated to Pennsylvania as part of the opioid settlement…” said Erica Clayton Wright, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland. “Based on that agreement, we will identify ways the funds can be used for state and local governments to put measures in place to help prevent such a crisis from happening again while also offering treatment options to communities currently effected by the crisis.”

The settlement is drawing pushback from some local officials.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner quickly sued Shapiro’s office over the settlement saying the money coming to Philadelphia would be too little to address the costs and the payments too slow.

A Cambria County lawmaker said his county should receive a fair share from the settlement since it’s among the hardest hit by overdoses and pill dumping.

“We know all too well the damage these pills have done – everyone in our areas has been affected in one way or the other,” said Rep. Frank Burns, D-Cambria. “If we’re stuck dealing with the problem, when the settlement comes, we should be getting the bulk of that money to correct the devastation caused by the influx of these pills to our community.”

Cambria is regularly listed in the top five counties in per capita overdose deaths while a 2018 study found Cambria the most saturated county with shipments of opioid painkiller pills, said Burns.

The story with the state Tobacco Settlement Fund could offer clues to how the Opioid Settlement Fund would work.

The multi-state tobacco settlement was reached in 1998 with a main goal of reducing smoking, especially among youth. The settlement placed no requirements or restrictions on how state spend their annual tobacco payments, according to an analysis by the House Democratic Appropriations Committee.

Three years later, the tobacco fund was created under Act 77 of 2001 after lawmakers debated various spending proposals.

The state budget typically sets percentages for distribution of some $350 million in annual tobacco money to a range of programs.

Since 2001, there have been appropriations for such programs as tobacco use prevention and cessation, aid to hospitals, health research grants and Medical Assistance for Workers with Disabilities and aid to help biotechnology programs to name a few.

The state budget for Fiscal Year 2017/18 authorized borrowing against $1.5 billion in future tobacco payments to help balance the budget.

In 2018, Shapiro announcement a settlement with tobacco firms to resolve two decades of disputes relating to the original settlement. This provided a cash infusion to the fund.

The new state fiscal code creates some new beneficiaries for tobacco funds, including spinal cord injury research, pediatric cancer research and capital and equipment grants to entities engaging in biotechnology research.

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If you have any questions, please contact Jack Phillips, Director of Government Affairs.

Capitolwire: Gov. Wolf’s COVID-19 Disaster Emergency Declaration Will Come to an End Once PA Certifies the May 18 Primary Election Results

By Chris Comisac, Bureau Chief, Capitolwire

HARRISBURG (June 10) — Led mostly by the bodies’ Republican majorities, the state House of Representatives and Senate on Thursday approved a concurrent resolution to terminate Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 disaster emergency declaration.

Additionally, the General Assembly sent to the governor legislation that would to give executive agencies an extension, until Sept. 30 of this year, of the regulatory flexibility they have had under the governor’s COVID-19 disaster declaration for more than a year.

“The people of Pennsylvania have spoken and our members have turned their vote on May 18th into action by exercising the will of the people to immediately terminate the COVID-19 emergency disaster declaration,” said House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, author of House Resolution 106. “With Pennsylvania rapidly returning to normal thanks to a legislative-led vaccine rollout and the need to keep our economy on a track to vigorously reopen, we did not want to wait a minute longer to terminate this emergency disaster declaration that has been responsible for so much economic devastation over the last 16 months.”

Republicans noted Wolf has already lifted nearly all of his mitigation orders, with the masking mandate to end before the end of June, while vaccination rates continue to climb as COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations have been dropping dramatically for several weeks – all suggesting the emergency has passed, and it’s now time for the General Assembly and governor to work together to address matters going forward.

The resolution was amended both Wednesday evening and then again Thursday morning (a technical fix to the measure) by the Senate prior to that chamber’s vote later Thursday morning, a 30-20 tally that saw one Democrat – Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton – join the Senate’s Republicans and Sen. John Yudichak, I-Luzerne, in adopting the concurrent resolution.

In a statement issued following the vote, Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, said: “Delivering on its promise to the people of Pennsylvania who voted ‘Yes’ on the ballots in the primary election, the Senate officially voted today to end the COVID-19 pandemic emergency declaration. A collective effort by the legislative and executive branches resulted in actions that terminated the current emergency declaration while preserving the health and safety of Pennsylvanians. The extension of waivers provides health care and economic flexibilities to protect Pennsylvania families, especially our elderly and vulnerable populations, while ending the most stringent and unnecessary restrictions still in place since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. This vote restores liberty by helping to reinstitute legislative powers throughout times of an emergency by giving the general assembly a seat at the table. Pennsylvanians deserve a government that works for them, and the senate looks forward to continuing to do its part to lead this effort and in the best interest of all Pennsylvanians.”

Senate Democrats, as they did Wednesday evening in committee when considering HR106, questioned the authority by which senators were voting on the resolution when the state has yet to certify the results of the May 18 primary which saw voters approve two constitutional amendments limiting some of the governor’s disaster declaration power and giving the General Assembly the ability to terminate a declaration by majority vote on a concurrent resolution by both chambers.

The results have yet to be certified by the Pennsylvania Department of State, but GOP lawmakers noted that would likely occur during the next few days, since counties had until this past Monday to certify their results to the state agency.

Concerns about the future of programs and services that have been delivered by use of executive order under the authority of the COVID-19 disaster declaration, as well as federal funding providing those services and benefits to Pennsylvanians, were likewise expressed by Democrats who claimed the emergency isn’t over, people are still suffering and it remains unknown if the COVID-19 situation could worsen as it did last year.

Some House Democrats attempted to minimize the importance or meaning of the HR106 vote – which saw eight House Democrats join all House Republicans in adopting the measure 121-81 – with House Minority Whip Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, repeatedly saying during his floor remarks before the vote, “This resolution does absolutely nothing.”

And Bill Patton, press secretary for House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, sent an email to members of the press suggesting that as reporters write about the HR106 vote, “if you happen to reference the May 18 vote on statewide ballot questions 1 and 2 please know that neither one got more than 52% approval (51.7 and 51.8 to be more precise). Slightly higher numbers were reported early on when the counting was incomplete but the latest tally is available here [Pennsylvania Elections – Summary Results (pa.gov)]. While there’s no question about the outcome on May 18, the numbers do still carry some weight. Also please bear in mind these numbers have not yet been certified.”

A source who wished to remain anonymous reacted to the comments about the constitutional amendment vote totals by pointing out President Joe Biden only received 51.3 percent of the national popular vote in the 2020 presidential election, and only 50.01 percent of Pennsylvania’s vote – with both percentages less than what was cast for the constitutional amendments on May 18 (and a slightly greater percentage opposed to Biden in Pennsylvania than those opposed to the ballot questions) – but Biden still won Pennsylvania and he’s still president.

Responding to the floor remarks of Harris and other House Democrats, Benninghoff observed during his closing remarks prior to the HR106 vote, “I think there is a little merit to wondering, at least on my part, why people have spent so much time and energy dialoging about something they say means nothing – how do you fight so much about something that means nothing? It has to mean something.”

The General Assembly’s actions seemed to mean something to the governor and his administration.

“Over the last few weeks the administration has worked hard to educate and inform the general assembly of the risks associated with ending the Covid disaster declaration prematurely,” said Wolf spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger in an email reacting to Thursday’s votes. “The governor is disappointed that the Republican-controlled General Assembly has not taken action to extend the disaster declaration. To avoid serious consequences, the administration will do everything it can to work with the federal government to try to maintain federal funding in the absence of a declaration. Now, when the election is certified, and the constitutional amendments become effective, the COVID-19 disaster declaration will be terminated.”

However, Kensinger said the administration welcomed the General Assembly keeping the various COVID-19 waivers put in place by his administration.

“The administration appreciates that the General Assembly agreed with the administration’s recommendations on the significance of keeping the important regulatory suspensions associated with Covid disaster declaration provisions in place,” said Kensinger. “The governor plans to sign the bill.”

The bill in question – House Bill 854 – was unanimously approved by lawmakers in both chambers Thursday, and grants an extension, until Sept. 30, 2021, existing regulatory flexibilities authorized by various executive agencies as part of the COVID-19 disaster declaration.

“Over the past 16 months, Pennsylvania’s regulatory framework has been upended,” said Benninghoff. “As our economy continues to emerge from the effects of government-induced shutdowns and our health care community continues to be reliant on existing flexibilities, I was glad to see both chambers quickly come together to effectively manage the remaining days of the pandemic.”

Regarding HB854, Sen. Yudichak said the bill “protects access to critical federal funding and waivers that benefit health and safety, such as the emergency authorization of telemedicine, temporary staffing at nursing homes and personal care homes, and other staffing issues in health care facilities.

Added Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster: “While many of the provisions in the Governor’s COVID-19 mitigation orders were overburdensome, arbitrary, and unfair, there were some provisions like the telemedicine waiver that we all agree have improved the lives of Pennsylvanians throughout the last year. We voted today to ensure that these provisions remain in place as our Commonwealth continues to recover and rebuild in the aftermath of this pandemic.”

By Robert Swift, Staff Writer, Capitolwire

HARRISBURG (June 9) – A Senate-passed bill to expand eligibility for a medical assistance program for working individuals with disabilities was approved unanimously Wednesday by the House Health Committee.

Members from both parties call Senate Bill 156 a bipartisan bill.

SB156 which now heads to a floor vote would increase the income eligibility limit from $32,000 to $76,000 annually so more individuals are eligible for the Medical Assistance for Workers with Disabilities (MAWD) program.

This would cover newcomers to the program and those defined as a “worker with job success” being age 16 an older, earning at least the minimum wage and meeting federal poverty income guidelines.

MAWD provides disabled workers access to home and community-based services that are important to them, but typically aren’t covered by private insurance.

The worker pays a percentage portion of their income to MAWD to cover health care.

Under SB156 sponsored by Sen. Bob Mensch, R-Lehigh, workers with the job success designation will pay 7.5 percent of their income to cover health care, a 2.5 percent increase above the current rate.

The bill would allow individuals to work to their full potential without fear of losing health benefits, said Mensch. Only 35 percent of people with disabilities are working with only 21 percent of that category working full-time, he added.

Increasing the income limit will improve the quality of life for the disabled, said Rep. Kate Klunk, R-York, sponsor of the related House Bill 1115 and of a previous bill that passed the House last session.

If SB156 is enacted, MAWD enrollment will increase by more than 1,000 individuals, according to a state Department of Human Services estimate. This is based on the number of MAWD recipients disenrolled due to being over income limits.

A Senate Appropriations Committee fiscal note estimates SB156 would cost $9.7 million with $4.6 million coming from state funds.