The General Assembly in Harrisburg needlessly wasted a lot of valuable time over the last four months passing a budget in the waning days of the fiscal year that Members knew was destined for the governor’s trash can. Those were critical days that legislators and the governor should have used to talk through their differences and reach a compromise.
The Bucks County Women’s Advocacy Coalition (BCWAC), composed of 37 organizations serving women and their families, is deeply concerned with how this process played out, the values reflected, and the risky credit position the state will be in if a compromise isn’t reached quickly. Pennsylvania’s credit rating was downgraded by Moody’s last year when they noted that the budget has a “growing structural imbalance.”
Four months ago, Governor Wolf unveiled his first state budget. With momentum from his election win in November and based on his campaign promises, he proposed a severance tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas drillers to increase funding for education as well as reduce property taxes and fix the state’s shaky finances.
In the following weeks, polls showed the majority of people supported his education and drilling plan. However, when BCWAC volunteers traveled to the Capitol in May, it was clear that Republicans controlling the House and Senate were not on board. But it wasn’t until late Friday, June 26 that Republican leaders announced their own budget plan with barely enough time to rush through the House and Senate before the end of the fiscal year June 30th.
There were no public hearings. The public was never invited to comment. There was no independent economic analysis for comparison of the governor’s and legislators’ budgets. As expected, the governor vetoed the Republican plan.
The alternative budget, it turns out, had no new revenue from the Marcellus Shale and little additional funding for education and other programs that have been dramatically cut in recent years.
Now our leaders must wipe the slate clean and move forward with a budget we hope will help remove barriers to women and working families so they can achieve economic self-sufficiency.
Among the top priorities must be funding education from pre-school to college so we have an educated and trained workforce for our future. With Pennsylvania ranking near the bottom in state support for public schools, we have a long way to go. Governor Wolf wants a severance tax on drillers to increase basic school funding by $400 million and special education by $100 million. Unfortunately, the legislature removed the popular drilling tax and provided only about a quarter of the funding that our schools need to avoid more property tax increases and to reduce overcrowded and undersupplied classrooms.
There are similar concerns about early education funding. The governor’s budget would help 14,000 more 3 and 4-year olds get into Head Start and Pre-K Counts, but the legislature’s budget cut the number of new kids served to only 3,500. That’s nearly 10,000 parents, especially single moms, who would be left out of those programs. For many of them, it’s the difference between having the opportunity to get a job and support their family or, without affordable childcare, being forced to stay at home and rely on government programs.
Many of those government services would be strained for another year too. The legislature’s budget locks in the cuts for critical county programs imposed by former Governor Corbett in 2011, leaving mental health, child welfare, domestic violence victim support, and drug and alcohol treatment to continue struggling.
In recent years, the legislature has talked about the need to reduce the numbers of Pennsylvanians living in poverty. The Majority Policy Committee’s Beyond Poverty report in 2014 was a hopeful sign of working to find bi-partisan solutions to poverty. Pennsylvania’s budget is an opportunity to demonstrate the commitment to that report.
We need a budget that restores funding to public schools, invests in the vital services that women and families need to flourish, and puts an end to accounting gimmicks and budget Band-Aids. It’s time for a bipartisan solution to generate new revenue with everyone paying their fair share to end budget deficits year after year.
Tam St. Claire
President, Bucks County Women’s Advocacy Coalition