Pa. counties highlight 911 services, election reform on 2023 legislative shopping list
Increased funding for 911 and mental health services, and efforts to ensure election “integrity,” top the list of priorities for Pennsylvania’s county commissioners as a new legislative session begins — and as a new gubernatorial administration takes office.
“We’re calling on [Gov. Josh] Shapiro and the General Assembly to actively engage with counties to help [us] maintain safe and effective services,” Venango County Commissioner Albert “Chip” Abramovic said Wednesday during a news conference put on by the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, the professional group that advances the interests of 67 county governments across the state.
The commissioners’ group said Wednesday that it had highlighted six topic areas as must-gets during the new legislative session that began earlier this month. In addition to 911 services and election reform, the group said it also wants to work with lawmakers and the administration on funding for county mental health services — particularly where they concern county jails; behavioral health services for children, and broadband expansion.
Those areas were chosen because they were most likely to have a “positive impact,” on counties if they successfully get over the finish line, Abramovic said.
County governments have long pressed for more — and predictable — funding for county mental health services.
In particular, they have called on lawmakers to approve a plan to spend $100 million in one-time federal money intended to support those services. Last year’s legislative session ended without a plan to spend the windfall of American Rescue Plan money, which is needed to shore up what officials have described as a crumbling safety net at the local level.
A state-level Behavioral Health Commission, working in concert with the mental health community developed recommendations on how that money should be spent.
- $37 million for workforce development to train and retain mental health workers;
- $23.5 million to provide care to people in jail or reentering the community, create diversionary programs as alternatives to jail for people with mental health or substance use disorders;
- and $39 million for services including crisis centers, mental health integration into primary health care, and societal determinants of health such as housing.
“These services must be properly funded to keep up with demand,” Dauphin County Commissioner George Hartwick, a Democrat, said during Wednesday’s news conference. “The current mental health system has been pushed to the point of collapse.”
County leaders also asked to have a seat at the table if — and when — the General Assembly takes up issues of election reform this year. While there’s not an agreement on how to proceed, lawmakers of both parties do agree that Pennsylvania’s election laws are in need of a rewrite.
County officials on Wednesday called for clarity and consistency from lawmakers on matters of election “integrity,” which they described as efforts to make it easier for people to vote — and for local elections officials to process those votes.
In particular, county leaders said they want to expand the time allowed for what’s known as “pre-canvassing,” where counties open and prepare mail-in ballots to be counted and processed ahead of Election Day.
They also called for moving back the deadline to apply for for absentee and mail-in ballots to 15 days before Election Day so that “voters can be confident there is plenty of time for counties to process the application, and for the ballot to be mailed from [the county] to the voter and back again,” the commissioners’ association said in a statement.
But with the state House on hold — and control of the narrowly divided 203-member chamber on the line in a series of special elections on Feb. 7, it could take a while before local officials see movement on their priorities. Abramovic acknowledged the flux in the lower chamber, but said county leaders saw it as an “opportunity” rather than a roadblock.
County leaders also said Wednesday they were encouraged by Shapiro’s decision to tap county leaders, including former Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh, for key cabinet positions. Shapiro also is a former Montgomery County commissioner.
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