Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission officials and civil rights advocates called Tuesday for increased state funding at a hearing convened after reports in the Inquirer and the Daily News about major problems at the agency.
"Where we are now is kind of sad," said interim Commission Chairman Joel Bolstein, who described the antidiscrimination agency as a "vibrant place" when Gov. Tom Ridge appointed him to the board in 1999.
As a result of funding cuts in recent years, Bolstein said, the commission is now run by a skeleton crew of dedicated but overloaded workers. Some investigators are carrying from 80 to 100 cases of alleged employment, housing, and educational discrimination.
"We're at the point now where we're kind of reduced to our core function," Bolstein told members of the Senate State Government Committee. "Is that where we should be? I don't think so."
The hearing followed Gov. Wolf's abrupt removal in April of Commission Chairman Gerry Robinson. Federal lawsuits filed by ex-employees accuse Robinson of using racial epithets and tampering with the controversial selection process of Executive Director JoAnn Edwards in 2011.
Current and former employees - 18 people, from investigators to lawyers - have told the newspapers that the commission, once a nationally respected civil rights agency, had been essentially dismantled.
Longtime staffers have left or been forced out. Some said the agency under Robinson and Edwards fostered some of the hostile working conditions and discriminatory hiring practices it is supposed to root out in the private sector.
Former investigators said clients' discrimination cases were being dismissed without a full investigation.
Robinson, a lawyer whom Gov. Tom Corbett named chairman in 2011, has said he had sought to make the agency more efficient amid budget cuts.
"We're supposed to enforce the antidiscrimination laws of the state," Robinson said in April. "It's not a wellness center."
At Tuesday's hearing, State Sen. Anthony H. Williams (D., Phila.) said he was disturbed by media accounts of how the commission operated under Robinson.
"This agency stands for a standard that should be protected and revered," Williams said. "There should never be a partisan or personal agenda."
Edwards, who remained as executive director following Robinson's removal, said the commission's budget has shrunk from $14.1 million in 2008-09 to $10 million this year. The staff was halved.
"We need the support of the General Assembly," Edwards said, urging lawmakers to pass Wolf's 2016-17 proposed budget, which would restore about $2 million in funding and enable the agency to increase its staff to 104 and conduct more training and outreach.
In 2007-08, the commission recorded 147 probable-cause findings, agency records show. By 2013-14, that number had fallen to a low of 40.
"The PHRC is failing the people who rely on it the most," said Julie Foster of the Public Interest Law Center, adding: "In part, it's a result of lack of resources. In part, it's a lack of leadership."
Last year, however, probable-cause findings increased to 68. Edwards said settlement rates are up 8 percent and settlements are up by nearly $1 million as a result of a case-management process installed in 2013.
Tom Herman, president of SEIU Local 668, which represents commission employees, asked senators to restore all of the PHRC funding lost since 2009.
"Hatred still exists in the world. Discrimination still exits," Herman said. "We're actually seeing more hate crimes instead of less. There is a pressing need for the commission, but not as it exists today."