10/20/16-This Week in Government Affairs
The Pennsylvania Insurance Department on Monday approved premium increases of up to 55 percent for health insurance plans sold on the Affordable Care Act's online marketplace in the state. Calling the increases “significantly higher than (she) would have liked,” Insurance Commissioner Teresa Miller explained that the rate hikes were needed to keep insurers from abandoning the market completely. “We were trying to make a one-time correction … we hopefully got these products to a place now where they are more accurately priced,” Miller said. Increases averaged 32.5 percent for individual plans and 7.1 percent for small group plans, according to the Department's news release. Reminder: the annual Open Enrollment period during which people can buy and switch plans on the marketplace runs from Nov. 1 through Jan. 31. Meanwhile, House and Senate lawmakers returned to Harrisburg Monday for the first week of a busy two-week session sprint in which it's likely they'll wrap up legislative action for the 2015-16 session. A diverse cross section of stakeholders, including the PA Chamber, continue to work with lawmakers toward getting a comprehensive public pension reform measure to the governor’s desk. Senate Bill 1071, previously sent to conference committee to iron out differences between the two chambers, would be the likely vehicle to deliver these needed reforms. Other business-related legislation with a shot for considertation over the next couple weeks include reforms to the state’s Unemployment Compensation system relating to seasonal workers, and a measure that would bring more transparency to the process by which state contracts are negotiated with private attorneys. Also on our radar is pending House consideration of Senator Bob Mensch's Performance Based Budgeting legislation, SB 1341, which would streamline state government spending by requiring departments and agencies to justify their budget requests for all existing, as well as proposed programs, for each fiscal year. And finally: plan to attend the UBCC and partnering Chambers sponsored Debate featuring the Candidates for the 8th Congressional District -- Steven Santarsiero and Brian Fitzpatrick -- Friday, October 28, 8 a.m. at Delaware Valley University. As always, your feedback on public policy and government affairs is most welcome -- Jim Haigh: firstname.lastname@example.org
Last week our Government Affairs Committee heard firsthand from Senator Bob Mensch about his Budget Reform Legislation, Senate Bill 1341. Sen. Mensch explained how his measures would help eliminate wasteful government spending in Pennsylvania. SB 1341, also known as Performance Based Budgeting, seeks to streamline and justify discretionary and state government spending by requiring departments and agencies to justify their budget requests for all existing, as well as proposed programs, for each fiscal year. This would allow the legislature and the Governor to properly budget for Pennsylvania state agencies. Specifically, the bill would create a performance-based budget board to review the performance-based budget plans of Pennsylvania agencies and make recommendations on how each agency’s programs may be made more efficient. While it's crunch time in Harrisburg, with limited session days left leading into the general election, hope remains for this budgeting reform -- the Senate passed SB 1341 over to the House, where the bill maneuvered past Finance straight into the Appropriations Committee setting up quicker consideration. On the Federal Front, some cautionary hope on the New Overtime Rules -- the US House voted to delay the implementation and enforcement slated to commence on December 1st. However: the 6-month delay would still need to pass the Senate in the post-election Lame Duck Session -- and then Both Chambers would likely need to override an almost certain Veto from the Executive Branch. So, as a practical matter, you may want to abide the professional advice given at our recent Lunch & Learn on Topic: Plan for the worst and hope for the best. And on a final, election-related note: if you haven't yet, mark your calendars and plan to attend the UBCC and partnering Chambers sponsored Debate featuring the Candidates for the 8th Congressional District -- Steven Santarsiero and Brian Fitzpatrick -- Friday, October 28, 8 a.m. at Delaware Valley University. We sent in a list of questions for the candidates, but if you have any you'd like to add, get them to me and I will share with the moderators. And as always, feedback is always welcome! Jim Haigh - email@example.com
9/29/16-Local municipalities, UBCC and QCSD form policy group to boost regional collaboration, enhance community
Keeping the best interests of taxpayers in mind, representatives from QCSD, four municipalities, and the Upper Bucks Chamber of Commerce recently met to exchange ideas. The goal of the newly formed coalition is to find ways to help each other communicate important issues to the public, share services and possibly purchase common goods. Meeting participants included Paul Stepanoff, who shared information on behalf of Richland Township, where he is the manager. He is also, of course, the QCSD School Board President. Others sharing ideas were Milford Township Manager Jeff Vey, Haycock Township Secretary/Treasurer Chris Bauer, Upper Bucks Chamber of Commerce Membership Development and Public Policy Director Jim Haigh, and QCSD Community Relations Coordinator Ricki Stein. Other board members in attendance were Chuck Shermer and Ron Jackson. Much talk centered on upcoming road work surrounding new and old developments that will affect traffic in the region. Some projects involve Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN), St. Luke’s Hospital and LifeQuest, which are driving much of the development, as well as several 55-and-over housing projects. Participants agreed to find ways to share communications about road and bridge closures to minimize inconvenience to commuters and school bus routes. Vey explained that road work plans rely heavily on input from PennDOT, the Department of Environment Protection (DEP) and the Army Corps of Engineers. Participants also discussed possibilities for purchasing goods and services to save money. The group plans to meet every two months. Discussion results will be conveyed to the public. QCSDTVNews teachers, along with Haigh and the UBCC, will collaborate to engage students in real world government and business experience, helping municipalities and local employers tell their stories on the local public access cable channels and also YouTube. We’re excited to be part of this important working group, this first meeting has already shown meaningful opportunities for collaboration. Have an idea for the group? Email Jim: firstname.lastname@example.org
9/22/16 - Performance Based Budgeting? Hear about it Here, Directly from Senator Mensch
Next Friday, the UBCC Government Affairs Committee will host State Senator Bob Mensch for a briefing on his state budget process reform legislation, Senate Bill 1341, which would bring Performance Based Budgeting to our Commonwealth. SB 1341 seeks to streamline and justify discretionary and state government spending by requiring departments and agencies to justify their budget requests beginning with dollar one, for all existing as well as proposed programs for each fiscal year, before they can receive consideration for budget funding. The bill would create a performance-based budget board to review the performance-based budget plans of Pennsylvania agencies and make recommendations on how each agency's programs may be made more transparent, effective, and efficient. The issue is most timely, and just this week a joint Senate Appropriations and Policy Committee Hearing was held, which included Dr. William E. Harner, Superintendent, Quakertown Community School District - sharing testimony on the successful performance-based budgeting experience at QCSD. Committee members have already received direct invitations for the 8 a.m. meeting next Friday, September 30th, here at the UBCC Board and Conference Room -- all UBCC Members are welcome, but space is limited -- so please RSVP to Jim Haigh, Membership Development & Public Policy: email@example.com or 215.536.3211.
9/15/16 - Mark Your Calendars & Get Us Your Questions!
Did someone say Election Season? As I write, I'll soon be heading out to a "get to know the candidates" event for the incumbent-less 8th Congressional District. This is one of what will likely be a multitude of political events here in Upper Bucks and around the County. One that all UBCC members should mark on their calendar is the Big Debate on Friday, October 28th at 8 a.m. - almost on the eve of what's shaping up to be an historic election. This event at Delaware Valley University, featuring candidates Brian Fitzpatrick and Steven Santarsiero, is jointly sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Bucks County, in conjunction with Upper Bucks Chamber of Commerce, Central Bucks Chamber of Commerce and the Chambers of New Hope and Pennridge. Now that you've marked your calendar...think of what questions you would like to ask of each candidate! We're working on a strong list now, and want to be as inclusive as possible - this District is rare in that we constituents still have a huge voice. By that I mean the borders reflect the contours of our County - one of the very few in the nation not gerrymandered to a degree where candidates essentially chose their voters. Here in the 8th, we still choose our candidates - get me your burning questions, and we'll do our best to get real answers on policy that matters to UBCC, our Members and the Community we call Upper Bucks. Email Jim Haigh at firstname.lastname@example.org.
9/8/16 - Government Affairs: Taking a Bold Stand
Our peers at the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce took a bold stand this week, testifying at a public hearing in support of increasing the minimum wage in Pennsylvania. Putting the actual public policy aside, it is a really big deal when a chamber - or trade association, union or other member based interest group - breaks from state and national namesakes' positions on a major issue. Especially when the issue is contentious, polarizing and any stance is bound to ruffle more than a few feathers. In this instance, they surveyed their diverse membership, crafted and debated and refined a nuanced policy position - and are publicly backing a position representative of their unique membership, and not the state and national chambers. Immediate feedback I've seen through public and private channels has not been overly charitable to what is objectively an act of independence - and reporting has not captured the nuance and flexibility actually proposed regarding wages. For the sake of the rigorous process our northern peers have in place for adopting meaningful public policy positions on matters of significance, we might hope that any backlash would be based on the substance of their stance - and not the mere fact of their "breaking ranks" as some are calling it. Chambers of all sizes have often been stereotyped as rubber stamps of public policy that flows from national, to state down to local - with little or no input from actual members. Deserved or not, that is a real and pervasive perception - acts of local independence, where members votes are counted, certainly challenge the stereotypes. The safest position is often taking no position, ruffling no feathers - but in reality, government happens to you, if you let it. And just a reminder: we want your feedback on this -- or any government affairs issues that matter to your business. Jim Haigh: email@example.com.
A hint of fall is in the air, and our State Representatives and Senators head back to Harrisburg for voting session at the end of the month. Several unfinished, budget-related items are still needing attention – these include proposals to expand gaming in the Commonwealth. The final 2016-17 budget was “balanced” using around $100 million in hoped for revenues from the yet-to-be enacted plan. Bills legalizing internet gaming, fantasy sports betting and slot machines at some off-track betting sites (and in certain airports) was approved by the House in June -- and is still awaiting action in the Senate. Movement on pension reform is also pending this fall. Before breaking for the summer recess, the House and Senate were debating two separate reform proposals -- both have a 401-K style component. One is a stacked-hybrid retirement plan – in it all new state and public school employees would keep the traditional defined benefit for the first $50,000 of their annual salary, then a defined contribution plan for any salaries above and beyond that figure. The other is a side-by-side hybrid retirement plan: benefits for future public employees would be split into two parts regardless of annual salary – with a portion going towards a defined benefit plan, and the other portion going towards a defined contribution, 401-K style plan. As it stands, a legislative pension reform vehicle is pending in a conference committee. Chambers and other allied stakeholders continue to urge legislators to come to an agreement on a substantive, comprehensive pension reform plan – one that addresses the growing unfunded liability and shift the risk away from the taxpayers. With the unfunded pension debt expected to jump again to about $60 billion, the pension crisis impacts every single Pennsylvania taxpayer – arguably the greatest threat to PA’s long-term fiscal stability. Today, more than 60 cents of every new dollar in revenue goes towards the state’s pension payments. The state will pay nearly $3 billion toward the pension systems this fiscal year – and that is expected to increase by nearly $1 billion by 2020. While there is growing bipartisan agreement that the pension systems as currently structured are unsustainable, arriving at consensus on actual, viable solutions in an election year could pose additional challenges. Then again, elections are about accountability, aren’t they? The UBCC Government Affairs Committee is always looking for new members, and is an open door for any policy interests or concerns: firstname.lastname@example.org
8/o4/16-Legislative Survey: How Would Postal Reform Impact Your Business?
Of all matters of public policy, laws and regulations governing the Postal Service are among the least sexy -- and not traditionally the domain of local, independent Chambers of Commerce. However, the legal mandate that caps rate hikes at the consumer price index is set to expire on December 20th of this year. Without going into the weeds, this means that -- absent new law renewing and updating Postal Reform last passed a decade ago -- annual rate increases could spike double digits, and current predictability would be out the window (note: this is distinct from the recent "Exigency" up-and-down rollercoaster). Legislation just moved out of Committee in the US House, and there's now talk of possible action in the Senate. As someone involved with this issue over the last many years, I can attest to how difficult consensus is to reach on the interrelated pieces of Postal Reform -- but the expiration of CPI Rate Caps makes action more critical for all stakeholders. Our voice, joined by sister chambers and other potential allies, could make a difference -- and there's a "tradition" of passing Postal Reform after decade-long intervals of inaction, invariably in Lame Duck Sessions. My informal polling of select UBCC Members so far indicates this is a big deal to them -- so I think this issue merits a formal poll of the entire UBCC Membership, as we consider if or how we might actively engage in shaping Postal Reform. Please take this short survey: http://survey.constantcontact.com/survey/a07ed1cw4teirgernl1/start
The more the funding package that passed in the middle of night to pay the Commonwealth’s bills this fiscal year gets analyzed by independent experts, the more big holes are starting to emerge. According to a report this week from S&P, the shortfall from gimmicks - like projections of $20 million from line item “Volkswagon Settlement” - could be a half-billion or more off base. There were millions budgeted from special liquor licenses for casinos - but nobody bothered to ask the industry if they wanted to pony up millions to serve patrons between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. Turns out they don’t, with many stating they wouldn’t even if allowed for “free” under current licenses - bottom line, no takers, another hole in the budget. Sound public policy cannot happen in a vacuum, and that’s why it is critical our committee meets regularly with our elected officials. At our last meeting we learned that the legislature will attempt another push for pension reform this fall, and at our next meeting Sen. Mensch will give us a detailed briefing on his Performance Based Budgeting initiative. The UBCC Government Affairs Committee is always looking for new members, and is an open door for any policy interests or concerns: email@example.com.
7/21/16-Legislative Alert: All Quiet...Except for the National Convention Circus
With the PA Budget now history, our state representatives and senators are out of session until late September, back home working in district. Congress is also in recess, while both parties crown their presidential candidates -- so with all eyes on Cleveland and Philadelphia, at least no legislative damage will be done. This time last week, our legislature had just passed the budget in the middle of the night, and we among many interested parties are still unpacking hidden gems buried in the legalese. Our neighbors to the north had a rude awakening as they’d been kept in the dark about new provisions clawing more money back to NIZ developers - merits pro vs. con aside, the process was the antithesis of open, participatory government. So let’s end on a positive note: additional funding was included to combat the opioid epidemic, including expanding treatment options - 20 Centers of Excellence will soon open statewide. And we will have one of those COEs here in Upper Bucks, with the DHS selection of Penn Foundation.
7/14/16 - Legislative Alert: PA’s “Complete” Budget Now Law! The increased spending passed at deadline weeks ago -- is now matched by new taxes and one-off gimmicks that passed literally in the middle of last night. There were no broad-based increases to income or sales and use tax – nor expansion to include small business services – but several groups were singled out for taxing persecution. Smokers will start paying $1.00 more per pack on August 1st, while the growing “vaping” industry could be pushed to the brink with a 40% tax at wholesale overnight. Also impacted by the late night deals are: Digital downloads (which might also include streaming services like Netflix – unclear at this time), bank shares, casino revenues, cuts to certain economic development tax credits – in addition to the openly discussed liquor “reform,” gambling expansion and tax on fantasy sports betting. There’s a lot more to unpack, as the ink isn’t dry and details are still be tinkered with. Stay tuned, much more on the PA Budget and other matters of public policy to follow – in the meantime, and comments, questions or concerns, I’m here to help – firstname.lastname@example.org
7/7/16 - Legislative Alert: PA Budget -- $31.5 Billion spending package became law without the Governor’s signature. However: just how to pay for it all is still up in the air. With a 5 percent increase in spending, on top of a growing structural deficit, and with one-time gimmicks in short supply after years of, well…at this point it appears all but certain that some form of new tax increases will become law. For the moment, raising “sin taxes” like those on tobacco products have the most support under the dome, and discussions still swirl around natural gas – however, things can change in a heartbeat. We are watching developments closely, ready to mobilize in opposition against a perennial favorite only whispered so far this season: Expansion of Sales and Use Tax, to include a host of goods and professional services that would cripple small business. Anything but “closing loopholes,” taxing accounting, advertising and legal services – along with clothes, shoes and food – would be brand new taxes for those forced to collect and pony up fresh coin. I have personally fought, successfully, against Expanding SUT for more than a decade – we have strong allies in a coalition of state trade associations, all ready and able to fight. Stay tuned, more on this and other matters of public policy to follow – in the meantime, and comments, questions or concerns, I’m here to help – email@example.com.
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