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Package of bills contemplates large-scale slimming of Pennsylvania’s state government

Pennsylvania state Rep. Seth Grove, R-York (Image courtesy of the Pennsylvania House website)

In 2017, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolfe moved to combine Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections with the Board of Probation and Parole via executive order after the House of Representatives declined twice to endorse the move.

Now, a group of Republican representatives say they’re following Wolf’s example by proposing a package of government reforms that heavily feature departmental consolidation. And while the bills may face long odds for becoming law anytime soon given the impending end of the legislative session, they provide insight into one direction that the future of Pennsylvania’s state government may follow.

The package of bills collectively described as “Reinventing State Government For the 21st Century” were considered by the House State Government Committee, where several of the representatives working on the package are members.

House Bill 2101

The first piece from Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, would merge a number of finance and budget-oriented state agencies into a single entity, the proposed Office of Management and Budget. The offices to be merged are the state Budget Office, the Department of General Services, the Office of Administration and the governor’s Office of Policy and Planning.

“What’s nice is it finally connects policy with budget,” Grove told committee members as he presented the bill. “Policy drives our budgets, drives the numbers within our budget documents.”

The proposal was questioned by Rep. Pam DeLissio, D-Philadelphia, who wondered why the administration wasn’t involved in crafting the bill.

“The commonwealth is a large, granted, bureaucracy,” she said. “It’s my understanding that the administration wasn’t at the table in terms of a stakeholder. … So, as much as I like the idea of looking at process and trying to improve it, make it better, I’m also aware that the administration has a number of these initiatives well underway.”

Grove replied that the administration would be heavily involved in implementing the plan if it became law.

“This does require a strategic plan,” he said. “So the agencies have to be at the table. … There is inclusion within this process to bring all the stakeholders at the table for all these processes.”

House Bill 2102

The newly created Department of Business, Tourism and Workforce Development that would derive from this bill would arise from the merger of the Department of Labor and Industry with subsections of the Department of Community and Economic Development and Department of State.

Rep, Frank Ryan, R-Palmyra, the sponsor of HB2102, argued that the whole package of bills, and in particular his proposal, were necessary for Pennsylvania to avoid a looming financial catastrophe.

“As an entity gets into greater financial distress, there’s a significant probability that problems will start to occur in terms of crafting solutions to problems,” he said. “And you’ve heard me say for probably my entire time in the Legislature that we have basically two to four years before we start turning around the ship, and if those financial solutions are not put into place fairly rapidly, the political solutions to getting us out of that financial problem are severe.”

The minority chairman of the committee, Rep. Matthew Bradford, D-Norristown, once more questioned the wisdom of transforming the executive branch without the governor’s input.

“There wasn’t a hearing on combining a large chunk of state government, and there’s been no conversation with the executive,” he said. “And while I think you’re every bit as knowledgeable on these issues … I’m just not convinced that’s the collaborative approach we need to combining large chunks of state government.”

“On a number of occasions, I’ve reached out to the executive branch on a number of bills, and we’ve gotten limited to no response,” Ryan replied.

House Bill 2103

The newly created Department of Local Government and Community Affairs would combine duties currently distributed among the Department of State and the Department of Community and Economic Development. The legislation is sponsored by Rep. Matthew Dowling, R-Uniontown.

“Pennsylvania has the second most local governmental entities of any state with almost 5,000 local governments,” a memo sent to representatives on the bill indicated. “This proposal would merge different state agencies to create a new state department to address local community needs and concerns.”

According to Grove, the new department would have oversight of elections and offer assistance to counties in running them. It would also oversee local government grant and tax credit programs.

House Bill 2104

Filed by Rep. Stephen Bloom, R-Carlisle, this piece of legislation would combine the Department of Health with the Department of Human Services.

“It would provide for a strategic plan looking at that, looking at trying to get 20 percent administrative costs consolidation, consolidation of other programs,” Grove said. “Also, trying to look at the regulations with the regulated entities under this department to try to reduce similar regulations on similar entities and try to bring relief to those entities moving forward.”

DeLissio proposed an amendment that would “gut and replace” the bill and substitute it with a proposal to accomplish something similar but without the requirement to realize a certain amount of savings. She said her proposal was endorsed by the Wolf administration.

“If we’re serious about trying to accomplish this [merger], this amendment, at least to me, would seem to begin a process where we could get to what seems to be a bipartisan willingness to do a consolidation,” Bradford said in supporting DeLissio’s amendment.

DeLissio’s amendment failed on a 15-11 party line vote.

House Bill 2105

Put forth by Rep. Jonathan Fritz, R-Honesdale, this bill would dissolve a number of state boards and commissions that are no longer active. Much of the conversation in the State Government Committee meeting on the bill revolved around a single entity, the Tobacco Use Prevention and Cessation Advisory Committee. According to Committee Chairman Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry Township, the tobacco panel hasn’t met since 2011 and last issued a report in 2012.

“It’s obvious that this committee has not been useful, not meeting in the last six years,” Metcalfe said. “I don’t know why we’d save them today. I think they’re primed for being taken out with the rest of the useless bureaucracy that’s been created in the past that we’re trying to weed out with this bill here today.”

Bradford said he supported the idea behind the base bill, but the list of entities to be shut down needed to be better vetted.

“I actually think the bill has a lot of merit,” he said. “And I think it’s a good idea. … I actually spoke to the administration this morning, I think there’s additional committees that can be added. But the problem is, if we do this in a vacuum … we can’t come to an agreement.”

Metcalfe agreed to postpone consideration of HB2105 until the Wolf administration had a chance to offer additional entities that could be considered for dissolution.

The other parts of the legislative package that were presented to the committee were all advanced on 15-11 party line votes.

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