A full year in Pennsylvania with the nation’s third highest paid lawmakers, and we watched this week as they scramble to meet a deadline in the final days of the fiscal year.
The Republican-controlled state House of Representatives and Senate returned to Harrisburg on Tuesday, as leaders negotiated with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf to agree on a roughly $42 billion budget plan before the July 1 start of a new fiscal year. According to the Associated Press, closed-door talks were still going on as Senate Republicans warned in a Monday afternoon statement that they were “far apart” with Wolf’s office.
The sticking points involve the amount of money Wolf wants for public schools. No surprise there: Republican lawmakers have balked every year at the governor’s ambitious plans to boost school funding in Pennsylvania.
While Wolf declared last year’s budget a success in getting $416 million more to schools, the budget nonetheless fell short of its potential with legislators putting $2.5 billion in a rainy day fund. This year’s state coffers are flush with some $12 billion in reserves and surpluses. It would take a deluge to justify keeping that for a rainy day.
According to reports, legislators are not discussing a broad-based tax cut. Wolf is proposing a $2,000 state stimulus to households with less than an $80,000 income to help with rising costs of housing, food, gas and child care. Also under discussion is increasing tax rebate amounts for seniors and disabled adults. (We favor the rebate expansion but not a one-time payment without remedy for the systemic issues driving costs of housing and child care).
The budget debate over education — a perennial dance between Republican legislators and Wolf — this year coincides with a lawsuit that has the potential to change the way schools are funded. Filed in 2014, the lawsuit is being brought by the Education Law Center, the Public Interest Law Center, O’Melveny & Myers LLP on behalf of six school districts, seven parents of children in those school districts, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools and the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference.
“A slam dunk would be a court order recognizing the legislature is violating the constitution and that we can’t have these wide disparities among districts,” Mimi McKenzie, legal director of the Public Interest Law Center, said as the months-long trial came to a close. A ruling is expected this summer but will likely be followed by appeals.
In the budget negotiations, Wolf is seeking $1.8 billion more for instruction, operations and special education with $300 million set aside as Level Up funding for the 100 poorest districts and $200 million designated for special education.
As the deadline has loomed in this budget sprint, we are reminded of the lack of priority and urgency in Harrisburg.
The House this week advanced a proposal to require Pennsylvania’s four state-related universities to promise they are not conducting research with fetal tissue from elective abortions. Lawmakers also debated requiring Penn State to disclose the whereabouts of the statue of legendary football coach Joe Paterno that was removed from public view in 2012 in the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse case. Sandusky was Paterno’s assistant coach.
“We’re looking at a statue that was paid for by an individual who remains nameless in a location that nobody knows and we’re sitting here with a budget negotiation, with the state budget that has to be done in a couple days,” said Rep. Scott Conklin, a Democrat who represents the State College area. “And we are going through a procedure of talking about a statue.”
In the end, we trust that the governor and legislature will agree on a spending plan, and we expect that it will include funding boosts for education, mental health, and clean streams, all identified as priorities by budget dealers. But we also expect that a good portion of the available $12 billion will be set aside for legislators’ pet projects from misguided election fraud investigations to causes that generate votes in their home districts.
Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Luzerne scolded his colleagues this week for injecting the Paterno controversy into the budget process. “We don’t govern for 51 weeks of the year,” he said. “This is the week. Let’s govern.”
No matter how rosy legislators and Wolf will make the budget outcome appear, waiting till the final days of the fiscal year is a failure. Lawmakers are working in a last-minute helter-skelter process behind closed doors. Citizens are denied transparency, thoughtful negotiation, and priorities that match pressing needs.
It’s a shameful state of affairs: Pennsylvania.
Source: Berkshire mont