Lawmakers focus on election, licensing issues in Pa. Department of State budget hearing

‘I’ll be leaning heavily on that performance management experience that I had … when it comes to these programs and the systems and keeping things on track,’ acting Secretary of the Commonwealth Al Schmidt said

By: - March 29, 2023 5:29 pm

Acting Secretary of the Commonwealth Al Schmidt speaks during a state House Appropriations Committee hearing on Wednesday, March 29, 2023. (screenshot)

Questions about Pennsylvania’s election readiness and slow constituent services dominated a state House Appropriations Committee hearing on Wednesday as lawmakers examined the Department of State’s $35 million budget request.

Acting Secretary of the Commonwealth Al Schmidt told lawmakers that the department is in the process of modernizing its online election administration infrastructure and developing new resources for county election officials.

But, weeks before the May primary election, Schmidt said the department faces ongoing challenges in filling vacant positions. As the next presidential election in 2024 approaches, the department will work to hire staff this year, when the primary and municipal elections will produce a smaller voter turnout, to ensure the election runs smoothly.

“It’s important that those things get addressed in cycles like this one and the cycles like 2025,” Schmidt said. “Presidential election years with higher turnout, higher activity, higher work tempo, give you very little time to do the sort of long-term structural human resources work that you need to do.”

At the same time, the department will be working to deploy a replacement for its 20-year-old Statewide Uniform Registry of Electors, or SURE, system, which allows county election officials to manage voter registration information. Although the new system is undergoing testing in 23 counties, the project is behind schedule and Schmidt said it may not be ready for the 2024 presidential election.

“The system has to be absolutely perfect before it goes live so that when county election administrators are working with it, they’re comfortable with it, and we don’t have any mistakes occur, especially in an environment where any errors are perceived as being either nefarious or intentional …,” Schmidt said. “It’s usually best to avoid implementing a new system during that time.”

Schmidt, a former Philadelphia elections commissioner, gained widespread attention in 2020 when he faced death threats from people who falsely claimed the election of President Joe Biden was fraudulent. Schmidt, a Republican, also served as CEO and president of the election watchdog group Committee of Seventy. 

Gov. Josh Shapiro tapped Schmidt to lead the Department of State after a period in which it oversaw the rollout of voting by mail in Pennsylvania, and pitched court battles over the inclusion of undated ballots in election results. 

It also faced legislative scrutiny over the slow turnaround of license applications, corporation registrations, and an error that caused a proposed constitutional amendment to be scrapped. 

Rep. Clint Owlett, R-Tioga, asked Schmidt what he will do to change the culture of the Department of State.

“I think you’re hearing from both sides of the aisle … that there are things that we can do better and we must do better and I look forward to your leadership,” Owlett said. “If this was in the private sector it would be a failure and people would be let go.”

Schmidt noted that he worked for years in the federal Government Accountability Office auditing federal programs, policies and procedures to prevent waste, fraud, and mismanagement.

“I’ll be leaning heavily on that performance management experience that I had before I ever entered the election space when it comes to these programs and the systems and keeping things on track,” Schmidt said. 

The department’s budget request represents a $5.9 million, or 5.9%, increase in overall spending. Questioned about an 87% increase in a single line item, for general government operations, Schmidt said a large part of the increase is funding for positions that are authorized but vacant. 

With a vacancy rate of about 35% in the Bureau of Commissions, Elections, and Legislation, the department is working to hire people with experience in election administration ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

Several lawmakers said one of the most frequent requests from constituents is for help navigating the state’s professional licensing system.

“There’s a lot of medical professionals coming out of school looking for these licenses to be issued in a timely manner and we’re hearing of extreme delays – months and months,” Rep. James Struzzi, R-Indiana, said. 

Struzzi said the department’s two-year timeline for a $10 million replacement of the state’s professional licensing system is unacceptable when the state is facing a shortage of workers in the medical field and the loss of qualified people to other states. 

Schmidt said the licensing system replacement is only one part of the solution. 

“Every bit as important are the number of vacancies that we’re currently facing in our department,” Schmidt said, noting that in the Board of Nursing about half of the positions are empty. 

Filling the jobs is difficult because many of the positions are specialized, requiring the knowledge to evaluate applications, and because the salaries are not competitive and the state hiring process can take up to three months. The conditions are challenging for the employees who are working, Schmidt said.

“There is a sort of performance death spiral that occurs because the clerk has to process applications, the clerk also has to answer the phone, and they can’t process the applications and answer the phone at the same time,” Schmidt said.

Rep. Abigail Salisbury, D-Allegheny, said that as an attorney she has had to explain to clients why it takes two months to set up a new corporation in Pennsylvania, and asked whether the budget proposal includes funding for sufficient staff to reduce the waiting time. 

Since January, the Bureau of Corporations and Charities has reduced the time to process new company registrations by half, to four weeks, Schmidt said. That is the result of mandatory overtime to reduce a backlog created by vacancies and a 10-day hiatus in operations when the bureau’s information technology system was replaced last year. 

“Mandatory overtime is not a long-term solution to fixing things,” Schmidt said. “You can only do that for so long. But filling those vacancies is an important part of it. So that once we do get our head above water, we can keep it there when it comes to processing those applications in as close to real-time as possible.”

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.