Local legislators expect to spend 2018 chiseling away at many of the same issues that Pennsylvania has faced in past years, business leaders heard during a forum Jan. 18.
The Harrisburg Regional Chamber & CREDC hosted its annual breakfast meeting with state representatives from Cumberland, Perry, and Dauphin counties at the Harrisburg Hilton, featuring a relatively free-form discussion between seven area legislators.
While each official had specific areas of interest to tout, some of the big topics remained open-ended, particularly where it concerned the state’s fiscal concerns.
Chamber Executive Director David Black noted that the state still has a structural budget deficit, asking when lawmakers could deliver substantial solutions instead of the “annual miscellaneous fixes we’ve seen over the past several years,” as Black put it.
But for legislators — six out of the seven being Republicans — the session was defined as much by what didn’t’ happen as what did.
“It’s often not what we do, it’s what we prevent from happening,” said Rep. Stephen Bloom. “Once again we stood strong against the very powerful forces in the capitol that were pushing for significant tax hikes.”
Rep. Greg Rothman likewise described the legislature as “playing defense” against various fiscal proposals that would hurt the state.
Who is in control?
But with the GOP in firm control of both the PA House and Senate, any tax proposals by Gov. Tom Wolf are just that — proposals.
In the example Rothman cited, one faction of the GOP played defense against the other in a last-minute bid to balance the state’s revenue plan by including a new tax on warehousing. Rothman described House Appropriations Chair Stan Saylor (R-York) as saying the tax was a “done deal” before Rothman and others raised objections to Republican leadership.
The panel’s sole Democrat, Rep. Patty Kim, praised the legislature’s bipartisan school funding reform, which creates a more fair formula for the disbursement of state aid to local school districts. Kim also praised the GOP’s passage of a budget that increases educational aid by $200 million, although Democrats have pressed to restore even more of the funding that was dropped during former Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget cuts.
“It doesn’t work unless we put funding into the formula, which we’ve done little by little, but I would like to see us fully funded,” Kim said.
Much of the discussion also centered on regulatory reform, with a recurring theme being legislators’ desire to speed up the approval process of various state agencies, or at least figure out why they might be slower than desired.
“Many times, in our local municipalities, we’ve dealt with the fact that businesses are held up because they cannot get the approvals…because there are not enough inspectors [to deal with all the regulations],” said Rep. Sheryl Delozier.
Rep. Dawn Keefer pointed to a series of five bills that would increase legislative oversight of regulations, which are promulgated by state agencies. Typically, these regulations are written in accordance with existing law, and reviewed by the state’s Independent Regulatory Review Commission.
Keefer’s HB 1237 would require that any regulation estimated to have more than a $1 million impact on state, local, or private finances be not only reviewed by the IRRC, but receive direct approval from the legislature in a concurrent resolution.
Rep. Mark Keller also spoke about his work as the chair of the House Urban Affairs Committee — an unusual appointment for “a person who has two traffic lights in his district,” Keller admitted.
But he has been working to develop a plan to have farmers sell produce at urban bus stops, an innovative idea that will help rural entrepreneurs and urban residents who live in so-called “food deserts” — low-income areas that don’t have any commercial grocery stores.
“We need to be careful we don’t over-regulate that and push out the small entrepreneur farmer,” Keller noted.
Rep. Tom Mehaffie, who represents the Hershey area, also discussed the legislatures need to address the consolidation of hospitals and medical insurers in the region, and the subsequent restriction of where certain insurance plans can be used. Mehaffie said he fears another showdown between Highmark and UPMC-Pinnacle, similar to what occurred in the Pittsburgh region.
“Insurance should not dictate choice…Pittsburgh had the same problem several years ago and I know it’s coming to Central PA,” Mehaffie said. “This is something we need, as a group, to pay attention to.”