Governor urges Senate to approve UC funding bill during Sine Die session

Governor urges Senate to approve UC funding bill during Sine Die session

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Gov. Tom Wolf has signed into law legislation to make several changes to the state’s unemployment compensation system, but that wasn’t the only UC bill on the minds of the governor and others.

That other UC bill – House Bill 2375 – did not get to the governor’s desk, but was seen as being just as important as House Bill 319, now Act 144 of 2016 after the Nov. 3  bill signing.

HB2375 would allow the transfer of $57 million out of the UC Fund to the UC Service and Infrastructure Improvement Fund for the purposes of funding the day-to-day operations and upgrading of the UC benefit system. For the last four years, the Department of Labor and Industry has been allowed to transfer about $150 million out of the UC Fund to be used for the day-to-day operations and modernization of the state’s 40-year-old legacy unemployment compensation benefits system.

The problem is, there’s still more work to be done to modernize the system, and the department hasn’t come up with a way to pay for its daily operations of the system without continuing to transfer money from the UC Fund.

HB2375 would allow the department an additional year to transfer funds, totaling $57 million for 2017. And while the bill did win approval from the state House of Representatives during the final hectic week of session in October, the Senate did not hold a vote, stating it ran out of time.

During the HB319 bill signing ceremony, Gov. Wolf urged the Senate to concur with the bill (it has already been approved by the House) when they return to session on Nov. 16.

“It’s critical that we get this bill passed so that effective customer service can be provided,” said Gov. Wolf, in light of the 44,000 more individuals who will be accessing the system due to Act 144, “as well as all working men and women who count on a reliable unemployment insurance system.”

Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, who took part in the HB319 signing ceremony, suggested the governor start working on Senate leaders to come back in November to hold that vote.

“Governor, I think I would encourage advocacy. As you know the Senate has not voted after elections in Sine Die, but if you can make the case why we should do that on the 16th, I think we may be willing to consider that based on your efforts and how you push that,” said Baker, majority chair of the Senate Labor and Industry Committee.

The legislative session doesn’t technically end until Nov. 30, but since 2008, neither of the General Assembly’s chambers has held voting session days after a General Election, referred to as” sine die” sessions.

Senate GOP spokeswoman Jenn Kocher offered a more pointed reaction to the Governor’s comments, writing in an email, “We are reviewing the bill with Sen. Baker and her committee but no decisions have been made. If the Governor is advocating that the General Assembly take votes during the Sine Die, it might also be an opportunity for him to collect votes for the pension plan since it also is something he claims so strongly to support.”

The most recent pension proposal did not come up for a vote in either the House or Senate  due to a lack of votes in the House. GOP leaders said Wolf didn’t try to get any House Democratic Caucus votes to pass the bill in the House (House GOP leaders said they were 3 votes short), while the House Democrats argued they wouldn’t have provided any votes if the Governor had asked since they weren’t included in the development of the legislation.

As for HB2375, the Department of Labor and Industry has warned that failure to authorize additional funding transfers could result in UC staff furloughs and potential UC call center closures.

When pressed about what happens if the legislation doesn’t get to the Governor’s desk, both Gov. Wolf and Labor and Industry Secretary Kathy Manderino said they’re assuming the situation will be resolved before January, when the department would have to “face the loss” of the funding.

“Gov. Wolf will continue to work with both Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate to address this challenge. Regrettably, without reauthorization, the department will be forced to move forward with consolidation measures and furloughs. However, the department will also do everything it can to mitigate the negative impacts associated with no action on this issue,” stated Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan.

Legislative sources said they continue to have discussions with the Department of Labor and Industry, and expressed, like the Wolf administration, hope that the situation can be resolved with limited impact on the ability of individuals to access the UC benefit system.

Sen. Baker also noted the UC changes contained within Act 144 do take into account the impact on the UC Fund that the $57 million transfer within HB2375 would have, should it become law.