In her first full week in office as acting secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, Montgomery County Democrat Leslie Richards was already dealing with the impact of a snowstorm.
When the news came that Leslie Richards would be nominated to head the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, a number of supporters made donations in her honor to her synagogue.
Of course, some of the donors included notes asking that their potholes be filled, joked Richards, whose husband, Ira, is a past president of Beth Tikvah B’nai Jeshurun, their Conservative congregation in Erdenheim.
Friends and family also donated to other synagogues in her honor, said Richards, the first woman appointed to the transportation post. And her first congratulatory certificate was from the Philadelphia chapter of Hadassah, the Jewish women’s organization with which Richards has long been active.
Richards, 47, must still be confirmed by the Republican-controlled state Senate, a process that she expects to take several months.
Regarding potential resistance she could face from Republicans in the confirmation process, Richards said she plans to meet with each senator. “I’m getting advice from a lot of people, and I want to make sure I am prepared. I greatly respect all the senators, and this will be the beginning of my establishing relationships.”
In her first full week in office as acting secretary, Richards, a Democrat who served as a Montgomery County Commissioner for three years, was already dealing with a major snowfall and what that meant for Pennsylvania’s transportation system and roads.
Having served as county commissioner and a member of the SEPTA board, Richards has experience dealing with transportation infrastructure. Still, she said, preparing for what was forecasted to be a heavy winter storm this week was a learning process.
“I’m used to looking at snow storms for only Montgomery County and surrounding areas, and now I’m looking at it for the whole Commonwealth,” said Richards, a resident of Whitemarsh Township, where she served as township supervisor. She said the department was “making sure that all the equipment is ready, the personnel is ready, the salt supplies are ready.”
Richards, the mother of three children, spent time leading up to the snowfall on conference calls with district leaders. After the storm, she said, the larger goals will be implementing transportation projects funded by Act 89, legislation passed in 2013 that authorized $2.3 billion over five years for roads, bridge repairs and public transit.
Despite the Republican majority in both the Senate and the House, transition team members and Jewish officials in Harrisburg were optimistic about the chances of passing legislation to improve social safety net programs.
In Philadelphia, leaders of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and other Jewish organizations say their top goals include: at least maintaining current funding for the state food purchase programs, given the budget deficit; eliminating the asset test to determine eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; and passing legislation to provide state funding for Natural Occurring Retirement Communities, programs that help seniors age in place.
Brian Gralnick, director of the Federation’s Center for Social Responsibility, who served on the Department of Aging transition team before Wolf was inaugurated last week, said the NORC legislation has bipartisan support — he expects a Republican House member to introduce the bill — and he hopes that it will pass this spring. The Federation operates a NORC program in Rhawnhurst that serves about 1,000 senior adult households.
The NORC program “is a model that has proven very successful in Israel,” said Gralnick. “It helps people age in their homes and age in their communities, which is where they want to age and where it’s cheaper for our community to care for them.”
Wolf said during his campaign that he would eliminate the asset test, which determines who can qualify for food stamps, and as such, Gralnick said he and others will work to convene constituents and the business community to “have that regulation abandoned.”
Hank Butler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, who lobbies on behalf of federations around the state, said he will push to increase funding for food subsidies, which has been stagnant in recent years.
“With the challenges of a $2.6 billion shortfall,” Butler said, the question will be: “Can we hope to” see state funding increase “and get more people food assistance?”
“You make campaign promises and then you’re faced with the reality once you’re in office of having to deal with budgetary constraints,” said Jay Spector, the president and CEO of JEVS Human Services, who served on the transition team for the Department of Human Services.
“We have to be practical about balancing a budget and still maintaining a significant level of support for people who are struggling to survive.”