Pennsylvania’s Budget Choices This Year

Marc Stier |

As we head into what everyone hopes will be the last month of the Pennsylvania budget season, this is a good moment to take stock of where we are and what’s at stake in the decisions the Governor and General Assembly will make this year.

Doing so will also explain why the Pennsylvania’s Choice campaign is urging people to attend a tele-town on the budget at 7:15 on June 1, a budget rally at noon on June 5 in Harrisburg, and lobbying days later in the month. (More information and registration for these events can be found here.)

Politicians and — let’s admit it — political advocates tend to magnify the importance of every moment. This election or this piece of legislation is the most important in a year, ten years, a generation, the history of the state or nation, or even the history of the planet.

Passing a budget in Pennsylvania is not that critical. But that doesn’t mean Pennsylvania’s choice this year is unimportant. We do have a choice to start moving in a new direction or to continue the long, downward slide toward political irresponsibility and public disinvestment we have seen in this state since 2010.

Since then, whipsawed by the worst economic crisis in seventy years that reduced state revenues and was driven by an extremist ideology that sees little good in the public sector, we have, with very few exceptions, been slowly reducing public investment in a state that never had the kind of vibrant public sector found in neighboring states.

  • Despite some increases in spending on K-12 education, we have never fully restored the Corbett cuts to education for schools in the lowest income districts, and the gap between the richest and poorest schools remain the largest in the country.
  • We have reduced funding on higher education to the point that we rank fourth from the bottom in the country and 40 states have a higher proportion of adults over 25 with a college degree.
  • We have long waiting lists for child care, disability, and mental health services, as well as help for the unemployed.
  • We spend a third less on protecting our water and air than we did in 2007 despite the increase in challenges created by natural gas fracking.

This investment deficit is made worse by a persistent budget deficit. That deficit has been created by large reductions in corporate taxes; by an upside-down tax system that doesn’t take a fair share from those whose incomes are growing, while burdening the middle class whose incomes are stagnant; and by the General Assembly’s constant reliance on short term fixes including overestimates of revenues, borrowing from the future, and one-shot revenues.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Governor Wolf has called for closing the budget deficit through smart proposals to make state government more efficient and responsive to our citizens and through corporate tax reform, a severance tax on natural gas fracking, and expanded sales taxes on business.

While the Governor’s proposals are welcome, they make only a dent in our investment deficit. But there are bolder tax ideas that would make it possible not only to close the deficit, but to invest more in education, human services, and the environment. These include our Fair Share Tax, which would raise $2 billion mainly from the wealthy while offering 60% of middle class Pennsylvanians a tax cut.

In response, the House Republicans have passed a budget that is driven by the same extremism and irresponsibility that has characterized their proposals since 2010.

It is, to begin with, unbalanced by $600 million. So far the House Republicans have not voted for taxes to close their budget, but have said they would consider a range of ideas, many of which are for short-term revenues that will cost the state in the future.
And what’s worse is that it reduces investment far below the already austere budget proposed by the Governor. It includes:

• $200 million in unspecified cuts to Medical Assistance;

• $62 million in cuts to Child Care Services;

• $50 million in cuts for Pre-K and Head Start;

• $95 million in unspecified cuts to Correctional Institutions;

• $9 million in cuts to mental health and substance use disorder funding; and

• $8.5 million in cuts from Safe Schools Initiatives.

Some people will suffer deeply as a result of cuts in Medical Assistance and other human services. And we will lose the talents that would have been nurtured by an expansion of Pre-K education as well as larger investments in human services and education. For others, the Republican budget is not catastrophic. But it will continue the long downward slide in the funding of the public services that enable individuals to live full lives and enable communities to thrive.

What is really at stake this year is not just this or that budget item, however important, but whether we can start turning this state government around.

We must start freeing ourselves from an extremist ideology that wants to shred the public sector to reduce taxes on the wealthy.

We must start putting the good of our communities above ideology.

We must start telling everyone who will listen, including our public officials, that we believe that public investment paid for by a fair tax system is the only path to shared prosperity.

And we can’t do that unless citizens from every corner of the state start speaking up, in Harrisburg and in the own communities.

Click here to find out how you can do your part.