UPDATE: Legislature Fast Tracks Unemployment Compensation Funding
By: Brent Sailhamer, Director of Government Affairs, ABC Keystone
Throughout 2016, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry, in conjunction with the Office of the Governor, routinely requested increased funding for unemployment compensation activities from the legislature. When those requests fell on deaf ears, the battle turned political, pitting Governor Tom Wolf against one of his presumptive opponents in 2018, Sen. Scott Wagner.
In late 2016 – just before the adjournment of the 2015-2016 legislative session – the Wolf Administration pushed an effort to fast track legislation that would have provided roughly $60 million in additional funding to secure Pennsylvania’s unemployment compensation (UC) call centers and staff across the Commonwealth. Opponents of the bill, led by Sen. Scott Wagner (R-York), claimed that the proposal lacked accountability and had insufficient requirements for when and how the funding should be allocated. That opposition caused the Senate to close down the session without taking a final vote on the legislation. In turn, the Wolf Administration promptly laid off nearly 600 state employees who manned the various call centers, causing a temporary crisis and a public relations fiasco that played out over the holidays.
As the Wolf Administration pointed the finger at the legislature for not taking the appropriate action to fully fund the UC centers, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale released an audit of that system that found that both the Corbett and Wolf Administrations had failed to request and draw down available federal funding specifically allocated for UC efforts. The embarrassment that the report caused for the Wolf Administration was a huge win for Wagner and his allies both in policy and politically.
After a couple month cooling off period, the legislature now seems willing to work together with the Wolf Administration. Senate Bill 250, introduced by Sen. Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland), would provide an additional $15 million of funding to UC operations for 2017, allowing call centers to reopen. The bill would also place heavy accountability measures on the Department, dictating how and where the money could be used. SB 250 sailed through the Senate in a mere three days and has continued to move. This week, the bill passed the House in an overwhelming 189-4 vote. Because of minor corrections made by the House, the Senate will concur on the amended bill this week, sending it to the Governor, who has indicated that he will sign the measure, providing funding relief to Pennsylvania’s unemployment compensation system throughout 2017.