Last Week of State Fiscal Year Focuses on Gaming Discussions, Other Unknowns

From PA Chamber of Business & Industry

With only a few days left in the 2016-17 Fiscal Year, lawmakers are scheduled to be in session through June 30, the state’s constitutional budget deadline. More session days may be scheduled as necessary.

Legislative leaders remain engaged in conversations over what the next year’s budget plan will look like, and details are scarce. There continue to be questions over what the Senate’s version of H.B. 271 – the gaming expansion bill – will contain, and based on a conversation that Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, had last week with Capitolwire, they are a long way off in reaching agreement. “My experience with gaming in the Senate Republican caucus I can boil down real simply,” Scarnati told the media outlet. “We have a third of the members of the Senate Republican caucus that are opposed to gaming because they oppose gaming. We have a third of them that have gaming interests in their district so they are somewhat not in favor of competition for casinos. We’ve got a third of the members in the caucus that, you know, could be influenced possibly one way or the other to vote for something. But there is no strong consensus. And when you start out with two-thirds of your caucus that principally are either against it or certainly economically opposed to something, it’s difficult. That’s why we’re where we are at.” Meanwhile, the House remains ready to go “all in” on gaming expansion as a way to generate up to $270 million in annual recurring revenue, with its version of the bill containing sweeping changes and allowing for video gaming terminals in bars, taverns and the like.

There are also said to be conversations about other forms of revenue to fill a $1.2 billion budget hole in the coming Fiscal Year, including borrowing and/or using money from the state’s share of the nationwide Tobacco Settlement Fund. In speaking with reporters last week, the governor didn’t outright oppose these ideas, but voiced concerns. The Associated Press has said that while Wolf is counting on an extra $250 million in money from new forms of gaming, the Department of Revenue has said doing so could lead to losses from the Pennsylvania Lottery and at casinos. “I want real revenue, and I want net revenue,'” Wolf told the press. “I don’t want anything that we do in gaming or gambling to interfere with the revenues that are already in place. If it just cannibalizes and takes from one bucket called gambling to another, the commonwealth isn’t doing anything more than it has in the past.”

Chamber Supports Expansion of Telecommunications Infrastructure

Adequate infrastructure is critical to the health and growth of communities. In addition to good roads, water, and electricity, reliable telecommunications is essential for resident safety and business operations. Unfortunately, telecommunications service, especially broadband internet, is either limited or nonexistent in significant portions of Montour and Columbia counties. The Columbia Montour Chamber recently joined with municipalities in northern Montour County in asking state legislators to work with potential providers to improve telecommunications infrastructure.

In underserved areas, cellular technology could be a viable option for homes and smaller businesses. However, many of these same areas also lack adequate cellular coverage. While speeds and network coverage in more populated areas are being improved, the carriers do not appear to be investing significantly in our rural areas to expand coverage.

From a regulatory standpoint, only the public utilities are compelled to provide a basic level of service. Today’s telecommunications marketplace offers other potential vendors. The Chamber is suggesting that funding policies should be modernized to provide incentives and assistance to these companies that is currently only available to the regulated utilities. This deficiency not only puts public safety as risk, but may cost our area job creating opportunities.

State House Bill Seeks to Reduce Opioid Abuse

The Pennsylvania Chamber of Business & Industry is urging employers to contact House members in their area early this week to urge support for H.B. 18, important legislation related to prescription drug and opioid overuse and abuse among injured workers in Pennsylvania, which the House is scheduled to consider Tuesday, June 20.

House Bill 18 would implement a prescription drug formulary – which are standard in hospitals, regular healthcare, Medicare and other public insurance programs – to help ensure appropriate patient care and address over-use of prescription drugs. The bill is necessary because Pennsylvania is facing a prescription drug and opioid abuse epidemic, and seems to struggle particularly with respect to injured workers. As we reported last week in Sentinel, in a recent study of opioid prescriptions among injured workers in 25 states, Pennsylvania ranked third, with opioid use in the Commonwealth measuring 78 percent higher than the median study state. The flexible approach offered through H.B. 18 facilitates more efficient care for typical patients, allows exceptions for unique cases and addresses the outlier cases of over-prescribing.

Prior to a vote by the House Labor and Industry Committee last week, the PA Chamber and a coalition of business, medical, construction, energy and local government groups sent a memo to the committee urging support for the measure because it will help injured workers in Pennsylvania avoid problems too often associated with prescription drug use and get healthy and back to full function and employment as soon as possible.

Chamber Calls for Increased Child Care Funding

Following a $20 million cut to child care line items in the 2016-17 state budget, the spending plan passed earlier this spring in the House would reduce funding another $28 million. The proposed cuts would dramatically increase the waiting list for services and force families to make tough decisions on child care and possibly staying at home to take care of children. As proper child care and early childhood development have been shown to provide a solid foundation for developing social skills and life-long learning, the Chamber is asking Senate and House members to not only sustain, but consider increasing funding for child care.

Funding for child care is important for many reasons, including:

  • The proposed cuts to the Child Care Services and Child Care Assistance appropriations would eliminate services for more than 10,000 children and increase the waiting list for these services to 19,000 – the highest level in the state’s history. 
     
  • This funding supports child care subsidies for low-income working families, which allow parents to work while their children are in safe and stable child care. These cuts include:
    • a $10 million reduction that would negate the proposed expanded enrollment of 1,800 children on the child care waiting list;
    • the further reduction of $40.2 million in state funds that would mean the elimination of 6,885 children from the current program; and
    • a $12.7 million cut to the Child Care Assistance line item that provides for child care subsidies for families receiving TANF and SNAP and will potentially impact 2,018 low-income children receiving subsidies through this line item. 

The Governor’s budget proposal includes a $35 million increase for child care to begin to reverse this trend. Budget negotiations continue through June and both House and Senate leaders have said they will have a budget to the Governor by June 30.

Chamber Offers Support for Pipeline Project at DEP Hearing

On Tuesday, June 13, Chamber President Fred Gaffney issued comments in support of the Atlantic Sunrise Gas Pipeline Project at a hearing of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). The hearing, held at the Bloomsburg High School, was specific to permits related to water obstruction and encroachment and erosion and sediment control. Pending approval of the permits, the project is expected to begin construction later this summer.

The Atlantic Sunrise Project, coordinated by Williams, will expand the Transco gas pipeline system with a new pipe approximately 185 miles long connecting the existing pipeline just north of Columbia County to southeast Pennsylvania. The project will allow more efficient transmission of Pennsylvania’s Marcellus natural gas. Construction will be divided into seven sections, and is expected to take one year. The economic impact for just Columbia County is estimated at $85.5 million.

The Chamber’s research indicates that modern pipeline technology provides among the safest methods of transporting natural gas. The Chamber Board previously passed a resolution supporting the expansion of Pennsylvania’s natural gas transportation and distribution pipeline infrastructure. Specific to this project, Williams has demonstrated its concern for property owners and the environment with the adoption of more than 400 route modifications affecting more than 60 percent of its original route.

More information on the DEP permit process is available on the agency’s website.

More information about the Atlantic Sunrise project is available here.