Ortega to step down as education secretary


Department of Education Secretary Noe Ortega will resign his position April 29, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Friday.

The governor said he will name Eric Hagarty as acting secretary.

“Noe is a dedicated advocate for all students and I’m grateful for his service to our commonwealth, Wolf said in a release. “He led the department through unprecedented times, ensuring a safe return to in-person learning and providing access to COVID-19 testing and vaccines. His successful efforts to diversify our educator workforce and improve opportunities for students to obtain postsecondary education opportunities will undoubtedly continue to impact our learners for years to come.”

 Prior to becoming secretary, Ortega was the Education Department’s deputy secretary and commissioner for the Office of Postsecondary and Higher Education. 


Hagarty currently serves as Wolf’s deputy chief of staff responsible for implementing the governor’s priorities and policies relating to education, including the “Level Up” program to invest more in Pennsylvania’s chronically underfunded schools, the COVID-19 vaccine initiative for teachers and the safe return to in-person learning, regulatory reforms to the state‘s charter school system, and generational investments in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

Wolf Administration approves Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative 

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program rewarding power companies that reduce carbon dioxide emissions, has been finalized by the Wolf Administration. 

The initiative, commonly known as RGGI, has been a focus of Gov. Tom Wolf’s since 2019 when he directed the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to develop rulemaking that established a carbon dioxide budget consistent with other RGGI participating states. 

RGGI is a partnership between 11 Northeastern and mid-Atlantic states. States participating in the program set a regional cap on CO2 emissions from electric power plants. 

Each state has its CO2 allowance budget, which plants must purchase from in an equal amount to the CO2 they emit. 

By joining RGGI, Pennsylvania will reduce up to 225 million tons of carbon pollution from its plants by 2030, prevent up to 30,000 hospital visits for respiratory illnesses like asthma and increase its Gross State Product by nearly $2 billion and 30,000 jobs by 2030, according to the Wolf Administration. 

“Today we are already experiencing the effects of climate change and those impacts are only going to get worse. Our children and their children are going to look back at our decisions and by participating in RGGI, we have begun to set Pennsylvania on the path forward to addressing this threat,” said DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell. “Climate change caused by pollution remains the most critical environmental threat confronting us and we are already paying the price.” 

RGGI was approved by the Independent Regulatory Review Commission of Pennsylvania last September and was then sent to the General Assembly for debate. 

Opponents have pointed out that the initiative would harm Pennsylvania businesses and could send the state’s power plants to other states. 

Earlier this month, the Pennsylvania Senate failed to block the program, falling just under the two-thirds margin needed to override an earlier veto Wolf made of a resolution passed by the Senate last year meant to void RGGI. 

The Senate is also expected to soon vote on House Bill 637, after its passage in the House in March. House Bill 637 would force the program to need legislative approval before a carbon tax on employers could be imposed on the state. 

DEP’s CO2 Budget Trading Program regulation, which will enter Pennsylvania into RGGI, will be published in the April 23, 2022 issue of the Pennsylvania Bulletin.  

The program is on track to participate in RGGI’s next quarterly auction, which sets the price for the purchases of allowances. Revenue from the auctions is returned to the states for reinvestment in efficiency and other Greenhouse Gas reduction programs. 

“Pennsylvania’s program is projected to cut up to 227 million tons of carbon pollution by 2030, deliver billions of dollars in public health benefits, and provide hundreds of millions of dollars annually for reinvestment in Pennsylvania’s families and communities,” said Joseph Otis Minott, executive director and chief counsel of the Harrisburg-based Clean Air Council. “These investments can help improve housing quality, increase energy efficiency, and lower electricity bills, as well as further eliminate air pollution.” 


Keystone grants awarded to four local libraries 

Four central Pennsylvania public libraries were among 21 libraries in 17 counties across the commonwealth to be awarded Keystone grants totaling $5.3 million from the state Department of Education. 

“Public libraries are a community staple — helping residents access critical services, resources, and programming, from educational materials to broadband,” Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Noe Ortega said in a release. 

Area libraries receiving Keystone Grants for Public Library Facilities are Annville Free Library, Annville Township, $750,000; Ephrata Public Library, Ephrata borough, $32,470.91; Lancaster Public Library, City of Lancaster, $750,000; York County Libraries: Glatfelter Memorial Library, Spring Grove, $80,000. 

The money will help the facilities improve their operations, install equipment and upgrade security systems. Award recipients were selected through a competitive grant process. 

Grants pay up to 50 percent of eligible costs in planning, acquisition, construction and rehabilitation of public libraries. Examples of fundable projects include Americans with Disabilities Act upgrades; roof improvements; replacement windows; and expansion. 

Wolf joins four Democrat governors to request pause on federal gas tax 

Gov. Tom Wolf, along with four other Democratic governors, is urging Congress to pass legislation that would pause the federal gas tax until the end of the year. 

In a joint letter to leaders in the US Senate and House, the governors said that the move would address rising gas prices amid international crises and rising inflation. 

Currently tax prices across the country exceed $4 per gallon. A pause on the federal gasoline tax would decrease that cost by 18.4 cents-a-gallon. 

The letter, addressed to Nancy Pelosi, Charles Schumer, Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell, asks for the approval of The Gas Prices Relief Act, legislation recently introduced in the House and Senate that would alleviate the consumer cost of rising gas prices. 

The letter was signed by the governors of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Colorado, New Mexico and Wisconsin. 

“Like most Americans, Pennsylvanians are grappling with rising gas prices as they navigate paying for other household needs, from their rent or mortgage to groceries and other necessities,” said Wolf. “A federal gas tax holiday would ease some of that pain on Pennsylvanians’ wallets without impacting important infrastructure projects that are funded through the federal Highway Trust Fund.” 

Pennsylvania receives $6.8 million to promote access to unemployment compensation system 

Pennsylvania was awarded $6.8 million in grant funding to help promote fairer access to the state’s unemployment compensation system, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Wednesday. 

The Department of Labor & Industry will use the money to assist underserved populations by hiring more CareerLinks staff; adding iPad technology available to staff and claimants; and hiring staff to eliminate the backlog of pending Pandemic Unemployment Assistance appeals for the population targeted by the grant. 

The goal is to increase public awareness so more people apply for unemployment compensation; improve service delivery so claimants receive their first benefits in a timely manner; and develop a better understanding of the equity challenges. 

Funding comes from the American Rescue Plan Act through the U.S. Department of Labor. 

“Particularly during the pandemic, unemployment compensation became a lifeline for Pennsylvanians, but it’s critical that all Pennsylvanians who need it have access,” the governor said in a release. 

“I’m grateful that this funding emphasizes efforts to ensure equitable access to the UC system and that it will support our Department of Labor & Industry’s ongoing efforts to ensure that our UC system is accessible and secure.” 

Pennsylvania, Oregon, Virginia and the District of Columbia were the first applicants awarded a total of $20.5 million during this first funding round. 

Wolf urges Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board to remove Russian-made products from state-owned stores 

In a letter to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board on Sunday, Gov. Tom Wolf urged the state board to remove Russian-sourced products from Pennsylvania’s Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores. 

Wolf’s letter follows Russia’s attack on Ukraine this month. 

“I urge you to remove Russian-sourced products from stores and cease selling them as quickly as possible as a small show of solidarity and support for the people of Ukraine, and an expression of our collective revulsion with the unprovoked actions of the Russian state,” Wolf wrote in the letter. 

Removing Russian-made vodkas off the shelves of state stores was seconded by the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association, which called the option reasonable. 

“This is a reasonable option for the Commonwealth to take to show its disapproval of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the damage the attack has done to world peace,” said Chuck Moran, executive director of the association. 

Russian liquor sold at Pennsylvania’s state liquor stores includes Russian Standard and Ustianochka. If the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board does follow through with Wolf’s request, the move would not include Russian-themed liquors. 

The association recommended a number of American-made vodka brands for taverns, bars, clubs and licensed restaurants to use instead of Russian-made vodkas including Texas-made Tito’s Vodka and locally made vodkas such as Holla Spirits in York. 


Gov. Wolf’s 2022-23 budget proposes $4.5 billion spending increase 

In his final budget speech before the General Assembly on Tuesday, Gov. Tom Wolf looked back at how the state has recovered from the budget deficit it was in during his first budget address in 2015 and highlighted plans for a $43.7 billion budget that he says can leverage the state’s current surplus. 

Wolf’s budget looks to invest in job training and employee retention with a series of provisions including increasing the minimum wage, reducing the corporate net income tax, funding childcare options for state employees and more. 

It also includes a significant emphasis on pre-k through college education with $1.9 billion in allocated funds. 

“Over the past seven years, we’ve turned a $2-3 billion structural budget deficit into a $2-3 billion budget surplus. We’ve built our Rainy Day Fund to more than $2.8 billion—more than 12,000 times what it was when I took office,” Wolf said in his address on Tuesday. “We are no longer digging out of a hole. We’re ready to build. And this year’s budget does exactly that, by making new investments that will build a brighter future for Pennsylvania families.” 

The budget would increase spending by $4.5 billion and would come at the expense of Pennsylvania’s long-term financial security, according to a statement released by Senate Republican Leaders, who said the budget was less about Pennsylvania and more about Wolf’s legacy. 

“While this year’s revenues continue to outpace estimates, the long-term financial picture for the Commonwealth remains uncertain. The Governor’s revenue and spending projections over the next several years are unrealistic, do not align with traditional rates of growth and will make worse our existing structural imbalance,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Pat Browne, R-Lehigh. 

The budget continues an effort by the Wolf Administration to increase Pennsylvania’s minimum wage, which would increase to $12 per hour on July 1, 2022, with annual increases of $0.50 until reaching $15 in 2028. 

Wolf’s annual push for increases to the minimum wage has been met with scrutiny by business associations that say that a minimum wage would harm small businesses in rural regions and that the majority of Pennsylvania businesses have moved away from the state minimum of $7.25 an hour. 

“Governor Wolf again called for increasing the minimum wage to an eventual $15/hour. The median wage in Pennsylvania increased from $16.50 in 2020 to $17.00 in 2021. The market continues to move wages far beyond $7.25/hour, demonstrating little need for new government wage mandates,” the National Federation of Independent Businesses wrote in a statement on Tuesday. 

The budget also seeks to decrease the state’s corporate net income tax rate from 9.99% to 4.99% “as quickly as possible.” Pennsylvania’s historically high corporate net income tax has been pointed to as a harm to Pennsylvania’s competitiveness in the business sector and could drive additional business into the region if it were to fall. 

Funding for Pennsylvania’s businesses and workforce through the budget would also include $1.5 million for Industrial Resource Centers and $8 million for job training through the Workforce and Economic Development Network of Pennsylvania. 

The $1.9 billion in educational funding pledged through the budget would be parsed across pre-k and through colleges with $70 million going to early education, $1.75 billion for general investments in K-12 schools and over $475 million for higher education. 

Regarding health care and long-term care funding, the budget sets aside $91.25 million to increase Medical Assistance rates for skilled nursing facility providers and $14 million for state veteran’s homes. 

Further investments include $50 million to increase the supplementary payment rates for personal care homes, a $36.6 million increase in county mental health base funds and a $14.3 million increase to the SNAP benefit for low-income older adults. 

The Pennsylvania Health Care Association, a statewide advocacy organization for long term care providers, said that the budget was “not enough.” 

“The Governor’s proposed Medicaid funding increase would be a critical step toward sustainability for long-term care – but it’s simply not enough,” said Zach Shamberg, president and CEO of the association. “At a time when nursing home providers are questioning their operational viability due to inflation and continued COVID-19 expenses, a workforce shortage has become a full-blown crisis, which has created bottlenecks in hospitals and access to care issues in long-term care facilities.” 

Wolf announces $2.5 million in Clean Energy Workforce Development Grants 

The Wolf administration announced a $2.5 million grant program Friday to boost the state’s clean energy sector as it tries to rebound from COVID-19 job losses. 

Five Clean Energy Workforce Development Grants of up to $500,000 will promote overall industry recovery from the pandemic. The state Department of Labor & Industry invites local workforce development boards to submit project proposals that would support at least 25 local or regional clean-energy businesses. 

Proposals are due March 14; the projects will kick off in July and continue through June 2025. 

A report last year from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection found that the state, which is a manufacturing hub for wind, hydro turbine and Energy Star products, shed 13,200 clean energy jobs between March and December 2020 because of the economic fallout from COVID-19. 

As the industry bounces back, skilled workers within the clean-energy sector are increasingly in demand. Even prior to the pandemic, at the end of 2019, eight in 10 clean-energy employers in Pennsylvania reported difficulty in locating qualified applicants, a release noted. Lack of experience and industry-specific knowledge were the main reasons. 

More skilled fabricators, assemblers and other manufacturing workers are needed, as well as construction and installation workers such as heating, ventilating and air conditioning mechanics, electricians and solar photovoltaic installers. 

The clean energy industry includes the technology sectors of energy efficiency, clean energy generation, alternative transportation, clean grid and storage and clean fuels. Among the subsectors are solar, wind, efficient lighting, hydropower, smart grid, electric vehicles, and biomass fuels. 

“This investment in the clean-energy sector’s workforce is an investment in the future of Pennsylvania,” Labor & Industry Secretary Jennifer Berrier said in the release. “While its recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is well under way, this is an industry that the Wolf administration wants to see thrive over the next decade. We need to be developing a talent pipeline now to make that vision a reality.” 

State bill allows PA mortgage lenders to continue remote work 

Mortgage lenders can now permanently conduct business remotely following the passing of a bill this week that updated a temporary waiver granted to the industry early in the pandemic. 

Gov. Tom Wolf announced on Thursday that he had signed House Bill 1588 into law following its passage in the House and Senate.  

The new legislation gives mortgage lenders the flexibility to originate mortgage loans from traditional brick and mortar locations. They can also conduct business from remote locations if they comply with specific consumer protection requirements. 

Mortgage Lenders were previously required to work out of a licensed location prior to the pandemic. Under Wolf’s emergency orders in early 2020, that requirement was waved. 

In the memorandum introducing the bill last year, the bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Robert Mercuri, R-Allegheny, wrote that the bill would make that temporary waiver permanent. 

“Pennsylvania’s mortgage brokers have been working remotely and originating mortgages in places other than their licensed place of business,” Mercuri wrote. “[The legislation would] allow for remote mortgage origination to continue and allow PA’s mortgage brokers to continue working as they are now, whether remotely or in a licensed location.” 

Gov. Wolf announces $1.7 billion COVID recovery plan for Pennsylvania

Gov. Tom Wolf announced a plan on Wednesday to invest $1.7 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds to help the state recover from the pandemic—a bid that critics say fails to put taxpayers first. 

The plan would invest $225 million into small business support; $204 million for relief for low-income renters and homeowners; $325 million for Pennsylvania’s healthcare system; $450 million for conservation, recreation and preservation; and $500 for a new PA Opportunity Program, which would provide relief to workers and families from the cost of childcare and household expenses. 

“As Pennsylvania endured the pandemic, we strategically invested to support small businesses, frontline workers, agriculture, healthcare, first responders, and more. This ensured that Pennsylvania survived,” said Wolf. “Now it’s time for Pennsylvanians to thrive and investing $1.7 billion in a bright future for this commonwealth will give Pennsylvanians a sense of security and a clear path forward.” 

Wolf was joined by Senate and House Democratic leaders at the capital on Wednesday to reveal the plan, which would be funded solely through federal dollars and not any general fund appropriations. 

The plan would include funding for The COVID Relief Statewide Small Business Assistance Program, which would provide grants ranging from $5,000 to $50,000 to small businesses impacted by the pandemic. 

It would also provide an additional $204 million investment into the existing Property Tax Rent Rebate program. 

For Pennsylvania’s health care industry, the plan sets aside $250 million for long-term care recruitment and retention incentives, $40 million for the behavioral health workforce to expand county mental health programs and $25 million to expand the student loan foreverness program at PHEAA to include additional critical health care workers. 

“Our state’s economy can’t fully recover until all Pennsylvanians can share in its recovery,” said House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Delaware and Philadelphia. “These targeted investments, drawn on a portion of the commonwealth’s American Rescue Plan dollars, will help thousands of Pennsylvania families and small businesses rebound from the repeated challenges caused by COVID-19.” 

The plan has been met with skepticism by House Republicans. 

In a joint statement released Monday afternoon, Speaker of the House Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster; House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre and Mifflin; and House Appropriations Committee Majority Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, said the proposals were “developed in a fiscal fantasy land where concern for future fiscal years apparently doesn’t exist.” 

Gov. Wolf and his Democratic allies have only put forward the largest cradle-to-grave tax increases in Pennsylvania history and proposals that will increase the cost for Pennsylvania families to heat their homes to fuel their desired unchecked spending regardless of the economic circumstances,” the House leaders wrote in the statement. “In short, the only reason the economic difficulties that have been brought upon the nation by federal Democratic leadership over the last year have not happened in Pennsylvania sooner is because Republican leadership has kept this administration in check.” 

DCED Secretary to retire from role, Wolf to name new acting secretary 

Dennis Davin. PHOTO/FILE

Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) Secretary Dennis Davin plans to resign from the position he’s held for seven years on Feb. 11. 

Following Davin’s departure, Gov. Tom Wolf said he intends to name Neil Weaver, the department’s executive deputy secretary, as acting secretary. 

Davin took the role of DCED secretary in 2015. He previously served as director of Allegheny County’s economic development agency and the director of the Allegheny County Redevelopment Authority. 

“It has been an honor to serve the people of Pennsylvania,” said Davin. “This administration made investing in our communities and build a strong economy its top priority, and I am proud of everything we have accomplished. We’ve made targeted investments in businesses and communities across the commonwealth, building a foundation for prosperity which no doubt will have lasting impacts for years to come.” 

Weaver has also held his position since 2015. Prior to joining the state, he held roles as Northeast manager of communications and government affairs at Bellaire, Texas-based Resource Environmental Solutions and director of client services at Buchart Horn in York. 

“Thank you to Gov. Wolf for this opportunity. I am honored to continue to serve the commonwealth in this new capacity,” said Weaver. “I want to thank Secretary Davin for his leadership over the last seven years. I’m proud of everything we’ve accomplished together, and I look forward to working with the DCED team to continue making impactful investments in our communities.”

Gov. Wolf signs $225 million health care funding bill into law 

Following approval from both the Pennsylvania House and Senate this week, Gov. Tom Wolf signed House Bill 253 into law on Wednesday. 

The bill allocates $225 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding to support health care professionals and strengthen Pennsylvania’s health care workforce.  

“This is a major, bipartisan investment in supporting the health care workers who have done so much for our commonwealth over the past two years,” said Wolf. “This funding will provide needed relief to our hospitals and health care workers. 

Through the bill, the state will distribute $100 million to acute care, critical access and children’s hospitals on a per-bed basis and $110 million to high-Medical Assistance hospitals, designated Critical Access hospitals and inpatient and residential behavioral health facilities for recruitment and retention payments to key staff. 

$15 million in funds will also be given to the nurse loan forgiveness program at the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA). 

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Clint Owlett, R-Tioga, Bradford and Potter counties, was introduced to the House in early 2021 to establish a task force to “improve the safety, well-being and permanency of substance-exposed infants and other young children adversely affected by their parents’ substance abuse disorders.” 

The Senate approved the bill on Tuesday after it was amended to include the $225 million in health care industry funding. The House then gave unanimous final approval of the newly amended bill on Wednesday. 

“We appreciate and applaud Governor Wolf and the legislature for listening to nurses and hospital workers and taking action on their demands,” said Matt Yarnell, president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare Pennsylvania, the state’s largest union for healthcare workers. “These bipartisan votes to direct emergency financial resources to the bedside and to support our essential caregivers during this pandemic is a good step towards the urgent reform that’s needed.”