In his characteristically short remarks opening the new session, President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson) did something out of character, he extended a specific invitation to Senators to introduce their ideas “today” on ways to solve the state’s budget issues.
“It is no secret that this year’s budget will prove challenging. Taxpayers expect us to have results and results require legislation,” said Sen. Scarnati.
“Over the past two years the Senate Chamber has set a strong example by what we have done. I have always believed if you hope to be an effective leader, you must first set the example that you wish others to follow.
“We have accomplished major liquor reform, moved forward on medical marijuana in the Commonwealth, made substantial progress on addressing the opioid addiction epidemic across our state and taken the lead on one of the toughest and most costly issues to taxpayers – pension reform. Moving forward we will continue to fight for a strong Pension Bill.
“Today is an exciting day as we welcome six new members to the Senate. We have much work to do in the Senate in the coming days, weeks, and months. Most of what we do we usually agree on, but when we disagree it is always done in a respectful way.
“As we move through today’s Session, let us not forget it was just New Year’s Day, a day to reflect on ways to better ourselves. But this year let us all make one extra New Year’s promise – let us resolve to work together to have a better Commonwealth for all Pennsylvanians.”
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre) outlined his priorities for the new session in a op-ed piece published before Christmas and they revolve around dealing with the three main cost drivers in the state budget-- pensions and the budgets for the departments of Human Services and Corrections.
“In the coming months, we are faced with a choice – we can raise taxes or we can take a look at those three cost drivers and reduce the rate of growth.
“Public employee pensions are an area where we are committed to continuing to take the steps necessary to reduce the risk to taxpayers.
“Significant changes must be made to both the State Employees’ Retirement System and the Public School Employees’ Retirement System in order to ensure long-term viability.
“Changes include moving away from the traditional defined benefit program and toward the type of defined contribution program that most in the private sector enjoy. Doing so will significantly reduce the risk to taxpayers while giving employees flexibility in their retirement planning.
“At the same time, the Department of Human Services (DHS) budget continues to increase by hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Medicaid costs are jumping and baby boomers are retiring and finding themselves in need of benefits. None of this is a surprise, but it’s not something for which the state was prepared.
“Changes to DHS programs, specifically to Medicaid and long-term care, do not have to result in reduced benefits but rather should be an effort to make certain that the money is being spent wisely.
“We have to examine the structure of the entire department to make sure we are getting what we pay for and the programs are being administered as efficiently as possible. We need to take a deeper dive into the numbers and the operations.
“In our corrections system, we see a recidivism rate of about 50 percent and a budget that is increasing by $150 million a year. We need to find a way to help those who have been incarcerated return to their communities successfully and not return to the correction system.”
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) said in recent interviews his Caucus will be fighting for an increase in the minimum wage, charter school reform, greater investment in job creation initiatives and community human services programs.
He also said he would like to see campaign finance and election reform on the agenda.
The Senate Democratic Caucus will also be pursuing legislation to address the role of pharmaceutical companies in the opioid crisis, doing away with the statute of limitations on child sexual abuses cases and adding protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Sen. Costa acknowledged that discussions on the budget will no doubt take up much of the time in the coming months. He pointed to the Marcellus Shale industry and the pharmaceutical industry and two possible sources of additional revenue for the state.(Photo: Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa.)