Pennsylvania at the Crossroads

Marc Stier |

Pennsylvania is at a crossroads. We face a stark and profound choice between two different paths. The first path would build on the broad consensus about public policy that animated our politics for generations. That consensus, forged by both Democrats and Republicans, recognizes that without good public education, our kids won’t succeed and our economy will stall.  It accepts responsibility for taking care of the disabled, ill and aged who, through no fault of their own, need our help.

It seeks no more, but also no less, taxation and government necessary to attain these critical goods. And it places the tax burden on those who can afford it most, corporations and the wealthy.

The other path, which abandons common sense and is contrary to the experience of most Pennsylvanians, tell us that government never works. It falsely proclaims that our schools don’t educate our kids, and that the health care and human services we provide to the aged, the ill, and the disabled are not our common responsibility. Its aim is to protect corporations and the wealthy from paying their fair share of our public expenses.

Our state government tried the extreme path of radical budget cuts in 2011. And the voters of Pennsylvania rejected it. Last year an extreme ideology held by a few stymied good-faith efforts on both sides of the aisle to compromise and achieve consensus. The result is that Pennsylvania faces an extraordinary deficit of $300-500 million this fiscal year and $1.8 to 2 billion next year. Our credit rating has been downgraded time and again.

If the extreme view prevails, the state budget will be devastated. Because so much of the budget is mandated by federal requirements and contractual obligations, there are few areas where substantial spending reductions can take place. Closing a huge structural deficit is likely to lead to a billion dollars in new cuts to education, cuts that will lead to the loss of thousands of teachers, guidance counselors and school nurses; that will deny our children the opportunities they deserve; and that will undermine our economy by starving our businesses of educated and trained workers. Closing the structural deficit without a tax increase will also bring about around $600 million in cuts to health and human services, cuts that would eliminate prescription drug coverage for hundreds of thousands; that would slash support for the intellectually disabled and those suffering from mental illness; and that would drastically reduce funding for child care.

Governor Wolf has rightly chosen the first path. But his proposed investments in education and proposals for new revenues are too modest. He does not ask enough of the corporations and the wealthy. With more revenue, collected in a fairer way, Pennsylvania could more boldly take the first path that works for all of us.

The governor does, however, stay true to the core Pennsylvania value that the state has an obligation to provide educational opportunity for all and the recognition—articulated long ago by Republican Thaddeus Stevens—that this investment benefits everybody because it strengthens the economy. As we analyze his budget in detail, we will have disagreements about specific tax and spending proposals. But, at a crossroads for Pennsylvania that could shape the future of the state for decades, we believe that Governor Wolf has chosen the right path.