News & Politics

UFOs, weed grows and more to know from the budget hearings

Recapping five moments from last week’s legislative hearings in Harrisburg.

Pennsylvania State Capitol building

Pennsylvania State Capitol building Pgiam / Getty Images

There’s a whole lot going on during budget season – not to mention the wonky, and sometimes wild, discussions that take place during budget hearings lawmakers hold with state agencies. Last week, the appropriations committees heard from officials in the Departments of Labor and Industry and Military and Veterans Affairs as well as higher education leaders and others.  

Here some of the moments that may have been missed during budget hearings in Harrisburg. 

Unidentified aerial phenomena, formerly known as UFOs

Yes, you read that right. UFOs somehow became the topic of discussion during the House Appropriations Committee hearing with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, when PEMA Director Randy Padfield noted the agency receives and handles calls forwarded from county 9-1-1 centers related to unidentified aerial phenomena. Padfield said most instances can be attributed to constellations or visible planets, as well as military activity. But his phrasing that “most” cases are unfounded or attributable to an event, while others are “undefined” led to some raised eyebrows among lawmakers – and possibly more questions in the near future. 

Cannabis and agriculture

Part of Gov. Josh Shapiro’s plan to legalize marijuana is to have the agriculture department play a significant role in the new industry. During a hearing with the House Appropriations Committee this week, Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding, who said he sees cannabis as “a potential new cash crop for our farmers,” hopes to utilize the department’s experience with industrial hemp as a stepping stone toward introducing recreational marijuana. Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers expressed concern for the proposal, casting doubt that the Agriculture Department is the right agency to regulate the industry. 

New higher education blueprint raises new questions

Lawmakers in the Pennsylvania House and Senate were eager to learn more about Gov. Josh Shapiro’s higher education plan, which proposes the creation of a new system overseeing both Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education universities and the state’s community colleges. The details, however, are still limited. PASSHE Chancellor Daniel Greenstein told Senate appropriators at a budget hearing: “I think everyone is waiting to see the detail of the plan,” adding that he only has access to what’s publicly available. Senate Education Committee Chair David Argall also appeared at a loss for when more details might come out. “Has anyone told you when this is going to be changed from an idea to an actual concept that legislators can read and vote on?” Argall asked before adding: “I suppose it's supposed to be coming to the Senate Education Committee, but I have no idea when we're actually going to see the legislation.”

Unemployment log-rolling

Department of Labor and Industry officials met with the Senate Appropriations Committee this week, discussing the unemployment filing backlog and labor law enforcement, among other topics. The backlog of unemployment filings from the pandemic was finally cleared last year, leading L&I to further address wait times for those seeking public assistance. Department officials said Thursday call wait times for unemployment inquiries are now averaging 27 minutes, a step in the right direction from the 80-minute-plus wait time and queue issues the department dealt with last year.

Differences in revenue and expenditure projections

During the budget hearing for the state’s Independent Fiscal Office, IFO Director Matt Knittel walked through the differences between the Shapiro administration’s financial projections and the IFO’s. For fiscal year 2024-25, Knittel noted that the IFO is projecting approximately $45.2 billion in General Fund revenues in the fiscal year, compared to $46.3 billion in Shapiro’s executive budget – a roughly $1.1 billion difference between the IFO and the Shapiro administration. The IFO director told lawmakers that the $1.1 billion difference doesn’t factor in potential revenues from marijuana legalization or the regulation of games of skill, which are proposed in Shapiro’s budget.