The Pennsylvania House and Senate returned to session last week, advancing legislation related to unemployment compensation, higher education, workforce development, teacher certification, data privacy, and more. Here is a rundown of what happened last week in the legislature of relevance to the business community:
Paying workers to strike (H.B. 1481)
On Wednesday, the PA House voted 106-97 to pass House Bill 1481, legislation that would reverse nearly 90 years of national and state precedent by making individuals who voluntarily go on strike eligible for unemployment compensation (UC) benefits.
These benefits are funded by taxes on employers. Pennsylvania employers already pay some of the highest UC taxes in the country – over 50 percent higher than the national average – to finance one of the nation’s more generous systems for UC benefits. Allowing striking individuals to access these benefits contradicts the fundamental purpose of UC, which is to provide financial assistance to individuals who lost their jobs through no fault of their own while they search for other employment.
We strongly opposed this legislation (CLICK HERE for our memo) as it would unfairly tilt the playing field against employers, create higher taxes, and make Pennsylvania a far less attractive place to do business. Four Republicans joined with all House Democrats in voting for the bill, which now advances to the state Senate.
See how your legislator voted HERE.
Higher education funding
Funding for the state-related universities reached a final resolution last week, after a months-long impasse, with the legislature sending a bill to the governor’s desk that contains a roughly $3 million increase for Lincoln University and Penn College of Technology and level funding for Temple, Pitt, and Penn State.
The legislature also passed legislation sponsored by Rep. Kate Klunk (R-York) requiring the state-related universities to provide additional information in their annual Right-to-Know Law filings, including information related to contracts, financial statements, faculty, compensation, enrollment, courses, and meeting minutes.
School code bills
Both the House and the Senate passed dueling education code bills last week. Largely similar in content, both versions included language to initiate a student-teacher grant program and establish a school mental health grant program – both of which were funded in the $45 billion budget signed by Gov. Josh Shapiro. Additionally, both versions would create a grant program for schools to address environmental hazards in their facilities, but neither version directs any funding to this new program.
However, the House and Senate appear to be at odds over the inclusion of a large increase in the Education Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC). The Senate education code includes a historic $150 million increase to the two programs, while the House opted to not include that funding in the version it sent back to the Senate. Accordingly, the impasse over the school code component of the 2023-24 state budget remains at an impasse.
Teaching certifications (S.B. 700)
The Senate also considered legislation intended to bolster the teaching workforce in Pennsylvania amidst the ongoing shortage of career and technical educators statewide.
Senate Bill 700 would amend the requirements to receive a Career and Technical Instructional Certificate from the state and more readily allow highly qualified individuals to transition from the private sector to the classroom, particularly in technical and trades jobs.
We supported this legislation, which unanimously passed the Senate on Tuesday and now heads to the House Education Committee.
Effectiveness of workforce development programs (S.R. 169)
The Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee moved to report Senate Resolution 169 out of committee last Monday.
This legislation directs the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee to conduct a study of the Commonwealth’s workforce development programs and seeks committee suggestions on ways to improve Pennsylvania’s workforce development delivery to benefit individuals and employers. We supported this resolution, as it will help synchronize individual and employer needs with the workforce programs administered in the Commonwealth.
Organized retail crime (S.B. 596)
On Wednesday, the Senate voted 46-4 to pass Senate Bill 596, which would establish an office of Organized Retail Crime Theft within the Attorney General’s office and lowers the current monetary threshold for a felony organized retail crime offense from $5,000 to $1,000.
Businesses large and small are facing rising occurrences of retail theft and organized retail crime. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, retail crime costs businesses in Pennsylvania over $7.7 billion in lost product costs, higher insurance, increased price of goods, and unrealized wages and accounts for over $1.2 billion in lost tax revenue to the state and local governments.
We supported this legislation (CLICK HERE for our memo), which now heads to the House Judiciary Committee.
Data privacy (H.B. 1201)
The House Commerce Committee moved to report House Bill 1201 out of committee last Wednesday. This legislation would regulate the collection and use of consumers’ personal data by providing consumers with certain rights and requiring businesses to protect and limit the collection of personal data.
The PA Chamber believes a national framework would be preferable for data privacy regulation to protect consumer data, promote transparency, and provide regulatory certainty in the marketplace, as opposed to a patchwork of state data privacy laws. That said, we have advocated that if lawmakers are to advance data privacy legislation at the state level, that they look to states such as Virginia and Connecticut, which crafted their laws with input from the business community, as opposed to laws like California’s, which is hostile to employers.
The legislation was amended in committee to make several improvements to better align several definitions with the Virginia and Connecticut laws, protect trade secrets and exempt financial institutions who are already regulated. Some concerns remain that the low threshold for covered entities (having the data of 50,000 individuals) and short compliance window (6 months) will make it difficult for small business. The PA Chamber will continue to engage on this legislation.