Government Affairs & General Updates
July 26, 2023
1. Budget includes line item to help PASSHE universities eliminate old debt. A $65.4 million appropriation to provide financial debt relief to the Penn West trio of state-owned universities at California, Clarion and Edinboro is included in the state budget bill awaiting final enactment. "We anticipate the appropriation will provide relief for years-old debt held by the System (Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education or PASSHE) for academic and student services buildings at the California, Clarion and Edinboro campuses," said PASSHE spokesman Kevin Hensil. Some of the specifics for how this money would be spent to relieve debt are unknown due to the three-week old impasse over the state budget for Fiscal Year 2023-24.
2. Lawmaker announces 'No budget, no pay" bill. Add to this to the category of bills that are unlikely to ever see the light of day - a House Republican has announced plans for legislation that would suspend the pay of state lawmakers, the lieutenant governor and the governor when the state budget is overdue. For those who haven't been paying attention, the state budget is 26 days overdue. "Responsible budgeting is Government 101. Harrisburg has its core services and functions and when we don't have a budget in place to begin a fiscal year, those services, such as programs for special needs populations, education and food banks, are at risk of being disrupted," Rep. Jill Cooper, R-Westmoreland, said in a statement released Tuesday. "Pennsylvanians deserve better than an inexcusable process that hurts our most vulnerable populations, while legislators continue to be fully compensated." Cooper is one of 12 House members who have not accepted their salaries for July and currently, one of two committed to the same in August.
3. PA isn't alone in struggle with toll scofflaws. The five largest toll agencies serving New Jersey lost $117.66 million last year to drivers who drove through toll lanes without paying or blew off bills they received, according to agency records, according to a news report in that state. Sound familiar? Similar issues have been plagued the Pennsylvania Turnpike since the turnpike switched to cashless tolling in 2020. Following up on an internal study that said more than $104 million in tolls went uncollected last year, an update in May 2022 found the amount had grown to $155 million. Nearly $1.5 billion in tolls was paid or expected to be paid during the one-year period from April 2021 to March 2022, The Associated Press reported. Act 112 of 2022 requires the Pennsylvania Turnpike to submit an annual report to the General Assembly documenting how much had been lost in uncollected tolls each year. That report is required to include: "a breakdown of uncollected tolls detailing the reason for failure to collect, including an unreadable or missing license plate, an undeliverable address or an unpaid invoice."
4. Shapiro touts federal broadband funding in visit to Erie County Gov. Josh Shapiro celebrated a new $1.16 billion federal allocation for broadband deployment during a visit to Erie County on Tuesday, touting the funding as a means to deliver internet access to unserved and underserved areas of the state. Shapiro said the funding, which was announced by the Biden administration in June, could be a key difference-maker in providing internet to the 276,000 households in the state that currently don’t have any access. “Having high-speed, affordable internet is not a luxury. This is not something that is for just special times, or special people or special purposes. This is something that needs to be available to all,” Shapiro said. The governor estimated that in addition to the 276,000 Pennsylvania households that lack internet access, another 52,000 lack access to “reliable” internet service. He said Tuesday that an expansion of internet access throughout the state will improve health and educational outcomes and boost the economy. “Positive outcomes come when people are connected to high-speed, affordable internet,” Shapiro said. Rick Siger, the state’s secretary of the Department of Community and Economic Development, was also in attendance. Siger said the department has heard from people across the state who have struggled without adequate internet. “This kind of investment really provides us with the resources we need to finally make internet for all a reality,” Siger said. Read More
5. Legislators forgo appealing education funding ruling Republican legislative leaders said this week they’ll accept the recent court ruling that deemed Pennsylvania’s education funding system unconstitutional. Now policymakers must grapple with what a new system looks like, and how it will meet the standards the state has fallen short of for decades. Former Gov. Tom Wolf, the legislature, and the state’s education officials were all taken to task in the landmark case, which was brought by a coalition of both urban and rural school districts, parents, and advocacy groups. The ruling found they had failed to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education” as stated within the constitution. The ruling in William Penn School District et al. v. Pennsylvania Department of Education et al, came in February, nearly a decade after the lawsuit was filed. Leaders had until Friday to make an appeal. Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, R-Greensburg, and Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, issued a statement Monday explaining the party’s choice not to appeal the court’s ruling. “In order to evolve our approach to school funding and ensure fairness for our students, further modifications and an examination of ways to streamline services must be explored,” the leaders said. “Engaging in a holistic approach which finds an appropriate balance between addressing the needs of students and respecting the ability of taxpayers to pay the costs is vital.” A huge area of concern for Pennsylvania public schools is the source of their funding. The majority of a district’s support comes from property taxes paid by residents. This creates a major gap between wealthy suburban districts flush with single-family homes and high property taxes and the vast majority of the state’s pupils, who are located in lower-income urban and rural areas. Read More
6. What you need to know about PA's bid for hydrogen hubs As the federal government prepares to dole out billions of dollars to encourage states to invest in hydrogen production to fight climate change, Pennsylvania lawmakers are priming the state to benefit from the rainfall. But as they make plans to regulate a new and potentially massive industry, serious divisions are emerging. The conflict comes amid a boom in the use of hydrogen, which when produced under a specific set of circumstances can be a carbon-neutral energy source. A desire to make the state attractive to the industry is pitting jobs-oriented lawmakers against environmental advocates who worry that without stricter regulation, hydrogen won't combat climate change as intended. That divide was recently on display in the state House’s Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, which assumed a key role in figuring out how to regulate hydrogen in Pennsylvania after the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act became law in 2021. The infrastructure law included billions of dollars in grants for the creation of hydrogen hubs, which are manufacturing centers for the production of the element. Last year, Pennsylvania lawmakers offered their own incentive to potential producers — namely, a $50 million state tax credit. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, with support from the commonwealth’s powerful building trades unions, see hydrogen hub development as a major job creator. But some Democrats in key positions argue the state also needs to put stricter guardrails on hydrogen production to ensure the new industry is actually environmentally friendly. Read More