Image: Pennsylvania revenue officials defend discrepancies, discuss upside of employees working remotely

Pennsylvania Secretary of Revenue Dan Hassell testifies March 5, 2018, before the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Pennsylvania Department of Revenue Secretary Dan Hassell recently defended a $950 million revenue difference between the Independent Fiscal Office and his administration’s 2021 estimate during last week’s Republican Senate Budget Hearing.

Fiscal year-to-date General fund collections totaled $23.9 billion, $901.3 million or 3.9 percent, above estimate.

“It’s one thing if they are close, but they aren’t close,” Sen. Scott Hutchinson said.

Hassell explained the administrations prepare budgets in different time frames and have been impacted by various federal stimulus packages.

The governor’s budget used economic forecasts available in December and early January, which are different from what revenue officials had available.

“And to be fair, as of that time the scope of the further stimulus package … was completely unclear,” he said, referring to the $1.9 trillion federal COVID-19 relief package that was signed by President Joe Biden on Thursday.

Hassell said he expected as stimulus packages continue to pump money into the economy, there will be a strong upward influence on the state’s revenue.

Most discussion was centered on how the department is operating during the coronavirus pandemic.

Hassell told the committee it took several months after closing down the first office in March 2020 before there was some semblance of normality. Eighty-five percent of employees are now working at home thanks to laptops provided for their use. The other 15 percent handles incoming and outgoing mail, which has to be done on site, or taking appointments for those who need custom services.

“The real pain points at this time continue to be our ability to handle paper documents at our Brookwood Street facility, which is where the incoming and outgoing mail occurs,” he said.

Staff was divided into shifts so employees could social distance, but Hassell said it was challenging to find people willing to work the second shift and he encountered the same when looking to fill the gaps with temporary workers.

He’s found that productivity under these circumstances is equal to pre-COVID-19 productivity, with the exception of non-electronic paperwork, where the department continues to struggle as it seeks solutions.

Hassell said it is feasible the department may keep the work-at-home model in the future as so far it is working well, especially as it has consolidated some of its field offices due to the pandemic.

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