Election-year budgets often are tame so as not to irritate voters, but the Pennsylvania budget breaks that mold in good ways and bad.
Flush with cash, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican legislative leaders agreed to significant investments in areas that have long demanded additional funding.
But as with any negotiation, some not-so-great ideas made it through and some worthy proposals didn’t make the cut.
• Education: Wolf had lobbied for a major increase in spending for public schools and he got it in his final budget before he leaves office.
Allocations to school districts through the fair funding formula, which determines need based on a variety of factors, will increase by $525 million. Another $225 million will go to the poorest school districts.
There also is more money for early education and special education.
It’s long overdue for the state to distribute more education dollars through the fair funding formula.
Before this budget, only about 11% of school spending went through that process.
Lawmakers may have felt comfortable putting more money into schools because of the state’s favorable financial situation. Revenues have exceeded projections and there is a surplus.
The state is being sued by parents, school districts and others who contend Pennsylvania hasn’t met its constitutional obligation to provide a “thorough and efficient” education system.
The case is awaiting a ruling from Commonwealth Court.
• Nursing homes and senior care: Amid projections that at least three of every four nursing homes could lose money this year, Wolf and GOP lawmakers stepped up.
The budget will steer about $515 million more to long-term care, through an increase in the
Medicaid rate and one-time payments from federal coronavirus stimulus funds.
Seventy percent of funding will have to be spent on resident care, Wolf said at a news conference Monday.
Nearly two-thirds of the state’s nursing home residents have their care paid for by Medicaid and the rate hadn’t been raised since 2014. Facilities were losing money because the rate wasn’t keeping up with increases in the cost of care.
During the negotiations, the state also agreed to pull back on a proposal to require more hours of care for each resident every day. The increase in care hours will be minimal, from 2.7 hours to 2.87 hours, instead of to 4.1 hours.
Instead, the state will focus on improving the ratio of workers to residents per shift, according to the Pennsylvania Health Care Association.
That’s a win because this isn’t the time to saddle nursing home with more requirements. Many can’t find enough workers now.
• Charter school regulations canceled: While education won more spending, it lost in accountability.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that new regulations drafted to improve accountability of charter schools will be pulled back by the Wolf administration.
The regulations, approved by the Independent Regulatory Review Commission in March, were not onerous.
All they would have done is make sure charter schools follow some of the same rules that apply to school districts.
They would have been required to use Generally Accepted Accounting Principles and Generally Accepted Government Auditing Standards.
Charter school trustees would have been considered public officials subject to state ethics laws.
That means they would have had to file annual disclosure forms about financial interests and recuse themselves from administrative or financial decisions if there are conflicts of interest.
The charter school lobby objected to the rules, of course.
Republican lawmakers agreed the regulations went too far. And the Wolf administration conceded this fight during budget bartering.
• Election funding: Spotlight PA reported that part of the deal included agreement on separate legislation that would set aside $45 million to help counties conduct elections.
That sounds good. It’s not.
Counties wouldn’t automatically receive the money. They would have to apply for it. And there would be conditions to qualify for a grant.
County workers would have to start counting mail ballots at 7 a.m. on Election Day and “continue without interruption” until all ballots are counted.
While they certainly could use the money, as election costs have risen with mail balloting, a round-the-clock tabulation would be unfair to workers. It also could lead to mistakes.
Counties would be better off taking their time and doing the job without such pointless pressure.
The politicians can wait to find out whether they’ve won.
If lawmakers really wanted mail ballots to be counted swiftly, they could allow them to be processed before Election Day, as many other states do.
Source: Berkshire mont