PA House passes Shapiro spending plan, spurring debate on both sides

The Pennsylvania House approved a new, bipartisan $45.5 billion state spending plan late Wednesday night. 

But passage depended on Gov. Josh Shapiro persuading the Democratic-controlled House with a pledge to line-item veto his proposal to use public money to fund vouchers to private schools, a priority favored by Republicans. 

Shapiro’s pledge was issued Wednesday afternoon, the governor stating that he wished to avoid plunging Pennsylvania into a “painful, protracted budget impasse.” 

The bill was approved in the chamber by a 117-86 vote, with every Democrat voting in favor and 15 Republicans joining them. The bill now heads to Shapiro’s desk and is expected to be signed in the coming days since it achieves many of the goals he addressed in his March budget proposal. 

“A budget is a statement of our priorities – and with new investments in students, teachers, seniors, moms, families, farmers, workers, cops, emergency responders, business owners, and more, this is a budget for all Pennsylvanians,” Shapiro said in a statement. “Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation with a full-time, divided legislature – meaning nothing gets done unless it can make it through our Republican-led Senate and our Democratic-led House. 

“I’m proud that this budget – one that makes historic investments in public education, public safety, workforce development, agriculture, and economic development – passed both the House and Senate, and I look forward to signing it.” 

State Rep. Donna Bullock, D-Phila., said that while the budget is not perfect, it makes investments in Pennsylvania’s most important resource – its residents. 

“Budgets are statements of values and House Democrats showed that we value education and working people and that we want to build a state that is safe, with good jobs and boundless opportunity,” Bullock said.

House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler of Lancaster likewise pointed to positive aspects of the plan. 

“It increases funding for career and technical education, workforce development programs, public safety, and property tax relief while maintaining our commitment to supporting public education, the PA State System of Higher Education, and increasing funding for Educational Improvement and Opportunity Scholarship tax credit programs,” Cutler said. 

“It increases support for our Rainy Day Fund, spends less than what the governor originally proposed, and is considerably more reasonable than the unilateral budget passed out of this House about a month ago by the Democrats on a straight party-line vote.” 

Cutler added thar the budget also has elements that cause concern. 

“For instance, it does little to address our structural deficit and runaway and unaccountable welfare programs, which if not addressed, will threaten the long-term ability of our state to genuinely prosper,” Cutler said. 

Investments in agriculture, community and economic development, education, public safety, and workforce development are all included in the budget, along with the second-largest increase for basic education since 2015-16. 

The plan represents an increase of 5% over last year’s approved budget, and the total spending figure would be several hundred million less than what Shapiro originally proposed. It’s also $1.7 billion less than what the House passed in June. 

Pennsylvanian’s two main sources of income, sales tax and income tax, are not increased under the new bill. 

School vouchers represente a prime area of contention, some $100 million being allocated for a program that would help pay for students to attend private or religious schools. Those in favor of the program believe it allows students to travel to schools of their choice. Critics see it as taking money away from public schools and using it for private schools. 

Initially in favor of this first-ever voucher program, Shapiro stated Wednesday afternoon he would line-item veto the full $100 million to break a budget impasse that was in its fifth day. 

Republican lawmakers see the voucher program as a top priority, and it served as a key to a budget deal between the democratic governor and Republican-controlled Senate which led to passage in the Senate on June 30. The program is largely opposed by Democrats, school boards, and teacher unions. 

Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, accused Shairpo on Wednesday of “backtracking on a handshake deal.” 

Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, and Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Scott Martin issued a joint statement that Shapiro “decided to betray the good faith agreement we reached, leaving tens of thousands of children across Pennsylvania in failing schools.” 

The plan is also less than what many Democrats had hoped for, as Majority Leader Rep. Matthew Bradford, D-Montgomery, noted. 

“Sure, I think there’s missed opportunities, but on balance, I think it moves the Commonwealth forward,” Montgomery said.

LV Chamber selected for national workforce training program

The Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce is one of 11 regions selected by the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives Foundation for economic mobility for rural workers.

As a participant in a new national program as part of the cohort for Economic Mobility for Rural Workers, the chamber will receive training and support to implement a program that helps place low-income, rural learners in good-paying jobs.

“We are just thrilled to be selected to participate and look forward to learning and collaborating with our peers,” Director of Workforce and Education Diane Harlow said in a release.

Sustainable workforce development remains a high priority for Lebanon County, which is made up of rural and urban municipality designations with more than 140,000 residents. Through advocacy, awareness, and collaboration, the chamber serves as a catalyst to support local workforce development.

The 18-month program is made possible with funding from Ascendium Education Philanthropy. All the participants will serve rural communities and explore and pilot different models that help place low-income, rural learners in good-paying jobs with career mobility.

Chambers will work together utilizing similar strategies and receive customized technical assistance. Participants will also develop a strategy to continue their work following the conclusion of the program.

As chambers are positioned to build and support cross-sector coalitions that create sustained business engagement in workforce development and education, they can support connections between postsecondary education providers, learners, and employers. The aim is to ensure rural learners have pathways to employment without having to relocate.

Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives Foundation President and CEO Sheree Anne Kelly said economic mobility is key to unlocking economic prosperity.

“Chambers of commerce are catalytic leaders ideally suited to address pressing talent challenges and ensure thriving and equitable rural economies,” Kelly said.

Shapiro announced $44B budget that gives, and takes away

Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro introduced his first budget plan to the state’s legislature Tuesday, promoting a spending plan he called conservative, that would save taxpayers money. 

The $44 billion 2023-2024 budget would increase spending by about 4 percent. 

But he focused first on a big reduction. 

He started by proposing the elimination of the state’s cell phone tax. 

“In today’s world, practically everyone has a cell phone – and being connected to the rest of the world is critical to economic stability, safety, family and success,” Shapiro said. “By eliminating the cell phone tax, we will save Pennsylvanians $124 million every year.” 

He called for an expansion of the Property Tax Rent Rebate Program for seniors and those with disabilities. 

He noted that the rebate program has not been updated in 17 years. 

“I want to raise the maximum rebate for seniors from 650 dollars to 1,000 dollars. And I want to increase the income cap for renters and homeowners to 45,000 dollars a year,” he said. 

Under his plan, nearly 175,000 more people would quality for the rebate. 

He also addressed the needs of business, calling on the legislature to speed up the reduction of the state’s Net Income Tax. 

“The budget also makes a significant down payment on innovation and economic development. Like a 50-percent increase in the Manufacturing Innovation Program, which connects our universities 19 with our businesses to find new solutions and spur innovation,” he said. 

Shapiro pointed to Allentown, which he described as a city with a thriving Hispanic population, and said the budget would address funding to support women- and minority-owned businesses. 

“For the first time ever, the commonwealth is going to put sustainable state funding into what’s known as the Historically Disadvantaged Business Program. We’ll provide long-overdue funding for women and minority-owned businesses across this commonwealth, to support their growth and open new doors of opportunity,” he said. 

Nothing that agriculture brings in $132 billion a year in revenue in Pennsylvania, he said the budget addresses farmers that have been dealing with an avian flu outbreak, which has contributed to skyrocketing poultry prices. 

“Under the leadership of Acting Secretary Redding, the Department of Agriculture is working to improve biosecurity efforts on our farms and make farmers who lose birds whole. Pennsylvania is the only state with a fund of $25 million to help fill the gap in covering losses from this terrible disease – and I want to put another $25 million into that fund this year,” he said. 

The budget also calls for a new Organic Center of Excellence to help the state’s 52,000 farms stay on top of the latest farming techniques. 

Shapiro also said the state’s $7.25 an hour minimum wage needs to be increased to $15 per hour. 

“It’s lower than that of 30 other states – including every single one of our neighbors,” he said, noting that the minimum wage hasn’t been increased in 14 years. 

He also vowed to continue to make improvements to the unemployment compensation system, which has been riddled with problems and delays. 

He said that a year ago, workers’ compensation had a backlog that was over 100,000. It’s currently down to 33,000, a number he said he’d still like to see improved. 

Childcare was another area he said needed a boost. 

He said the state economy loses nearly $3.5 billion a year because of a lack of childcare options. 

Pennsylvania has nearly 4,000 unfilled child care jobs and 38,300 children on waitlists. 

To address the issue the budget calls for a $66.7 million investment in Child Care Works to give more parents access to stable child care for their kids. 

Addressing education, he proposed nearly $1 billion in new money for public schools, including a free school breakfast program and pledged a half a billion dollars over the next five years for environmental repairs and upgrades in schools. 

The budget will need to be approved by the state house and senate and would go into effect July 1. 

Jobs, health care, internet, etc.: PA reps discuss issues critical to Central Region

Eight members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives participated recently in the annual Legislator’s Forum, hosted by the Harrisburg Regional Chamber and CREDC at the Hilton Harrisburg. 

Serving Cumberland, Dauphin, and Perry Counties, the representatives discussed their legislative priorities and offered thoughts on a variety of topics in a Q&A session. The discussion was moderated by Ryan Unger, president and CEO of the Harrisburg Chamber and CREDC. 

Representatives included Sheryl Delozier (R-Cumberland), Justin Fleming (D-Dauphin), Barb Gleim (R-Cumberland), Joe Kerwin (R-Dauphin), Patty Kim (D-Cumberland/Dauphin), Thomas Kutz (R-Cumberland), Dave Madsen (D-Dauphin), and Tom Mehaffie (R-Dauphin). 

Topics included reduction in the Corporate Net Income Tax Rate; regulatory changes; job skills/knowledge; teaching/nursing shortages; reliable/affordable health care; workforce development; and downtown businesses. 

As Pennsylvania’s Corporate Net Income Tax is being phased down from 9.99% to 4.99%, Kutz said there are talks to be “more aggressive” in the cut and reduce it faster. 

“It’s a good start,” said Kutz, “but I would like to see more advantages for small businesses and to make them more competitive.” 

Fleming noted that every time revenue is reduced it must be budgeted or replaced. 

“I’m hoping businesses are using those savings to re-invest in their businesses, hire more workers,” said Fleming. “I think that’s an excellent use of a giveback like that.” 

Regarding regulatory changes, Kerwin said permit delays are holding up businesses in the state and preventing other businesses from coming to Pennsylvania. 

“I’d like to see hard and fast timelines for these permits to be approved,” said Kerwin. “It’s ridiculous waiting months, years, for the permit process to open a business, to bring economic opportunity to Pennsylvania.” 

Gleim called permitting one of the biggest issues in Pennsylvania. 

“We have businesses leaving our state because they can’t get a timely permit and they’re leaving in droves,” she said. “Regulations are killing our businesses here.” 

Providing students with skills and knowledge to better prepare them for the workforce was also discussed. These skills and knowledge include being financially responsibility regarding credit card spending. 

“We’ve really got to engage early in the development of youth for financial literacy, right around middle school age,” Madsen said. “If it’s not happening in the home or school, where is it happening?” 

Mehaffie stressed the importance of schools and employers to help their students and workers understand the need for establishing good credit. 

“Help them do what they need to do to get good credit,” Mehaffie said, adding it will help employees purchase a house or car. “Without housing, without transportation, they’re not going to be good employees.” 

Shortages in teachers and nurses are major concerns. 

“We are in a teacher crisis,” stated Kim, who citing a lack of support and burnout rate, said there is a need for “incentive programs, college (debt) forgiveness, and support mentor programs.” 

Mehaffie added that there are three shortages – teachers, nurses and police officers. 

“If we don’t have our health care right, our kids educated, good security and law and order in our communities, we have problems,” he said. 

Just as job burnout is an issue for teachers, so it is for nurses, said Mehaffie. 

“This is a problem,” he said. “We have to talk with the colleges, the businesses to come up with a reason for people wanting to be nurses.” 

Reliable and affordable health care remains a concern. Delozier spoke to the importance of good child care for the workforce. 

“People are not going to work if they believe their children are not in a safe location,” she said. “Folks need child care they can count on.” 

Addressing workforce development, Fleming said school districts should be preparing students for jobs in their region. 

Infrastructure is a key concern, and it has expanded beyond bridges and roads to include the internet. The pandemic that forced remote learning for students and remote work for businesses made it clear that connectivity is essential for everyone. 

“We have to make sure the entire state can be connected,” Kutz said. 

Representing a rural area, Kerwin said broadband is “a major issue.” He spoke to the importance of obtaining insight from schools and businesses in providing connectivity to people in rural locations. 

Of traditional infrastructure, Kutz said that one of the core purposes of government “is making sure you have infrastructure to accommodate the growth you have. You can’t just stop when you have a system in place… The answer is going to be continued investment through public and private partnerships.” 

Delozier likewise called infrastructure a priority. 

“It affects commerce and communities,” she said. “It’s a priority for constituents and businesses.” 

Downtown business was the final topic discussed by the panel. Madsen remarked that as his entire community is a commuting community, there is a great need to examine key questions, one of them being if vacant offices are going to be converted into housing. 

Each rep offered closing comments. Gleim said the future of the business community in Central Pennsylvania is “so important because it is so fast growing.” Focus needs to be on expanding the workforce, she added. 

Kerwin said since economic issues affect everyone, “interacting with business leaders and fellow legislators is the more important thing we can do.” 

Mehaffie emphasized the importance of trades – carpenters, electricians, plumbers – and the skills required to do those jobs. Madsen spoke of the necessity to “figure out ways to grow and expand business and create workforce development.” 

Kutz said there is a need to reform policies and regulations to make the state more friendly to business “so that Pennsylvania can truly be a competitive business hub and a model for America.” 

Central Pa., Lehigh Valley projects granted funding for workforce development

Workforce development projects across Pennsylvania are receiving $5.5 million in Industry Partnership Grant funding aimed at meeting local and regional workforce needs. The announcement was made Wednesday by Gov. Tom Wolf. 

Central Pennsylvania and Lehigh Valley projects will receive approximately $2 million combined funds in grants. 

Industry Partnership (IPs) grants are administered through the Department of Labor & Industry (L&I). The program supports businesses partnering to build a stronger, more competitive job market through training, networking, recruitment, and collaboration within targeted industries and offer Pennsylvanians opportunities for pathways into careers and jobs with wages that are family-sustaining. 

“With Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate holding steady at a record low, it is our collective responsibility to make decisions that are responsive to the needs of both Pennsylvania workers and employers in sectors where talent pipelines are tapped,” Wolf said in a statement. 

“By investing in workforce development projects, and specifically industry partnerships, we can connect hardworking Pennsylvanians wit opportunities to advance their skillsets and obtain family-sustaining jobs in booming industries.” 

Pennsylvania has invested more than $40 million since 2018 to enhance opportunities for workers through apprenticeship programs and industry partnerships via Wolf’s PAsmart initiative. This new round of funding provides grants to 25 Industry Partnerships to increase awareness and implement strategies for workforce development in the agriculture, construction, education, healthcare, manufacturing, information technology, hospitality and energy industries. 

“At L&I, we strategically use resources to connect Pennsylvania employers with a highly skilled and talented workforce who can do the jobs of tomorrow,” L&I Secretary Jennifer Berrier said. “We continue to do that, first and foremost, by investing in people and their families.” 

Following is a list of Central Pennsylvania and Lehigh Valley PAsmart grant winners and their award amounts: 

  • AgConnect (Lehigh, Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, Northampton, Philadelphia – $250,000). Grant funding for technical assistance for farm and food business partners in the region for training, management, and accounting; create youth pipeline development and provide hands on experience to high school students; implement an Innovative Workplace Solutions grant program; and provide project management for the PA Cheese Guild and Growing Roots Partners’ Good Food Fest. 
  • Lehigh Valley Healthcare Pipeline Industry Partnership (Lehigh, Northampton – $250,000). The partnership will conduct healthcare industry employer roundtables and develop a Workforce Pipeline Strategic Action Plan Committee. Projected activities to support workers include identifying strategies for recruitment of adults, youth, and those in underrepresented populations. 
  • Manufacturing Alliance of Chester and Delaware Counties (Lancaster, Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, York – $250,000). Funding to recruit and retain employees for participating companies. The project will also focus on outreach efforts to youth and their parents promoting manufacturing careers and create programs to connect women and female students to careers in manufacturing. 
  • Smart Energy Initiative of Southeastern PA (Berks, Dauphin, Lancaster, Lehigh, York, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, Northampton, Philadelphia – $250,000). Goals include consumer and business education about different energy sources. 
  • The Innovative Technology Action Group (Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, Philadelphia – $250,000). The partnership will use its funds for employer outreach, technology education events for IT professionals, incumbent worker training, and youth career exploration activities. 
  • South Central Construction Industry Partnership (Adams, Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Juniata, Lancaster, Lebanon. Perry, York – $204,396.44). Funding will be used for partnership start-up and convening regional partners to develop outreach strategies. 
  • South Central Manufacturing Industry Partnership (Adams, Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Lancaster, Lebanon, Perry, York – $250,000). Funding to build a pipeline of diverse young individuals pursuing careers in manufacturing by promoting careers in the industry via social media and connections among manufacturers in the region. 
  • South Central NextGen IT Industry Partnership (Adams, Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Lancaster, Lebanon, perry, York – $250,000). Funding for creating awareness and access to employers and resources to increase a skilled workforce that can meet the current IT needs of the region. Funds will be used to build a communication infrastructure for employers, educators, and job seekers. 
  • Opportunity for All Pennsylvania Construction Industry Partnership (Statewide – $250,000). Funding to hire a project manager that will research and develop education materials on best practices around apprenticeship readiness, diverse pipelines, and local hire/community benefit agreements.

Talking workforce development with: Cumberland Area Economic Develoment Corp.’s Laura Potthoff

Laura Pothoff has been director of business and workforce development for the Cumberland Area Economic Development Corporation since 2014. She started her career in health care programming and moved into higher education at the University of Maryland, East Carolina University, and most recently on the finance team at Dickinson College. Pothoff has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Dickinson and a master’s degree in strategic leadership from Messiah College. She is a resident of Carlisle and has a son, Kaden, who is 13.

Q: What is involved in managing the CAEDC’s relationships to help generate business opportunities and workforce development?

A: I started out just building relationships with everybody in the county, finding out not only what their challenges were but their opportunities and why they were here in Cumberland County. We have been the fastest-growing county in the state 10 years in a row, and with that obviously comes a need for skilled workforce to meet the demands. I also get to work with all the banks, with people looking to start businesses, people looking to expand on current businesses; the other part is membership and engagement. We have quarterly meetings for our members and usually highlight something they’re interested in, to touch base with our members and also to give them something to walk away with. We also get state funding to protect our three military installations, so we meet with them and get updates on their mission and how we can better enhance them, and also let the community know what a benefit they are to have here.

Q: What would you say are the Cumberland Valley’s strengths and weaknesses to prospective employers looking to relocate here?

A: I often do business attraction. When we have employers looking to come to this area, the No. 1 thing we can sell is our quality of life. This is a great place to live, work and play. We met with some of the bigger employers and said if you have a lot of people in town, where do you go and why? They would travel somewhere, like to Pittsburgh to do TopGolf. The thing we’ve changed this year is to start working on some of that product development right here to bring people into the area. We have a great, strong workforce and great work ethic in this area. One of the challenges is having enough people to fill the positions we have open, and one of things we’d like to look at is working more with the southcentral region to market our area as a place to come live and work.

Q: What are some interesting initiatives coming up with CAEDC in terms of workforce development?

A: The first few years I met with employers and tried to get a handle on where their challenges were and then work with labor and industry to take a look at the skills gap. It’s difficult because there’s a lot of duplication of effort. We are building a website right now that will show a lot of who is doing workforce, like what are the chambers doing, what are other organizations doing, even our workforce investment board. We’re trying to create a one-stop-shop. It’s not so much we’re listing jobs per se, but it connects them to (resources) if they want to go back for training. Everybody knows there are problems, and we are trying to find solutions. Our focus was on three areas: advanced manufacturing, heavy equipment and healthcare. We worked with (schools) and employers and said, help us build programs you would value. We all have the same issues, we’re going to have to work together and collaborate. They have done that very well. 

Q: What is your favorite tourist spot in the Cumberland Valley?

A; I love that we have so many different places we can go hiking. We had just given a grant to Long Shot Winery, that is a really cool spot to go outside, sit and see the sun set, and they have some meat and cheese trays as well. Midway Bowling, we gave them a grant, they put an outside facility in with volleyball nets, a deck and outside seating with firepits, bocce ball and different things. I’m excited about that. We’re seeing a lot more breweries popping up and we just completed our beer trail last year, that’s something fun for people to go out and do.

Educators, state agencies seek to ‘rebrand’ trade schools for workforce development

After a 2019 audit found a need to coordinate workforce development efforts with local schools, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, pictured left, meets with local education leaders and students to discuss ways to break down the stigma preventing many students from enrolling in trade schools. – JUSTIN HENRY/CPBJ

Technical schools are collaborating with state agencies to “rebrand” skilled trade programs as lucrative career paths that streamline students into the 21st century workforce.

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale met with Dauphin County Technical School (DCTS) administrators and students this month to brainstorm ideas for destigmatizing trade schools so that students are exposed to alternatives to a college-prep curriculum. DePasquale said DCTS’s outreach efforts in local middle schools to promote its robust programs — including precision machine technology and automotive technology — play a major role in filling skills gaps in the state’s major industries.

“We’re trying to do a better job of merging some of the critical job skill programs that exist in Pennsylvania…so people can come out of here with really technical skills and get a good job, a good wage and have a good career,” DePasquale said. “Dauphin County tech has a lot of programs for growing and emerging fields so the students can come here and get great jobs and careers that are going to be around for a long time to come.”

DCTS Administrative Director Karen Pflugh said each of the skill development programs contains each component of the STEM acronym — science, technology, engineering and math. “Every single one of our programs would require the student to in some way engage with all of those,” she said.

Overcoming the stigma

Pflugh said the stigma surrounding trade schools as where all the “bad kids” go to school comes from the history of non-college bound students that were sent to those programs instead of college-bound curricula.

“Years ago students that were considered non-college bound were sent to tech schools as an alternative and that kind of developed a stigma that students who come here cannot go to college, which is just not true,” Pflugh said, noting that one student is slated to go to Cornell University.

“The more we introduce parents to see the high level technical and academic components combined, that their kids would learn coming to a tech school, that they would receive high academics and a high skill that would lead to financial sustainability — when they see that, it’s a game-changer for them,” she said.

Through DCTS’s highly prestigious and competitive student ambassador program, 11th and 12th grade students travel to their middle schools to entice students to matriculate to a trade-focused school instead of a traditional public high school by sharing their own educational journeys.

Christine Noll, a vocational training counselor who heads DCTS’s student ambassador program, began working at DCTS in 2014 as the public face and community relations manager of the school. She said her goal was to grow the number of students in the ambassador program from less than 10 to its current tally of 30.

“We go to all the county middle schools,” she said, noting that she matches the group of three students to the school from which they came during outreach visits. “They go to the schools they came from and speak to the entire eighth grade. They don’t just speak with the ones who are interested, they speak to the entire eighth grade.”

The skill gap

Despite a competitive labor force, Pennsylvania’s job growth has grown by a paltry 1.34% from 2014 to 2018, significantly less than the nation’s average of 6.43% during the same time period. State officials attribute this to a gap in necessary skills for employment in the state’s major industries.

DePasquale’s office conducted a “special performance” audit last year that found Pennsylvania’s workforce development is not meeting the needs of employers and showing mediocre performance compared with other states. The audit found that businesses find it difficult to fill workforce needs that have requisite training and skills.

The audit said state agencies need to do a better job of “rebranding” jobs in skilled trades as an alternative to careers requiring a college degree.

While a college-educated workforce is a vital component to the American economy, the audit states, there have been more young people going to college and less into technical training programs. The audit says this has diverted individuals, who could still earn a good salary with excellent benefits, from having careers in skilled trades.

“As baby boomers retire there will be a dire need to fill these critical trade and technical jobs that provide steady income and employment right out of the gate without accumulating the college debt that takes many years to pay off,” DePasquale said.