Recently, the General Assembly (Democrats and Republicans) passed a state budget that meets the constitutional muster of being on time, but that is about all it does.
Unfortunately, this mediocre budget is precisely what we have come to expect from the Republicans who have controlled the state Senate for last 31 years and the state House for 20 of the last 24 years even though there have been 12 years of Republican governors and 12 years of Democratic governors during this same time period.
Given these circumstances, Gov. Wolf should be praised that this budget does anything at all.
While this budget has $100 million more for basic education funding, it does not fix the cost disparity of funding; $10,833 per student in some schools versus $29,255 per student in other schools. That disparity ranks our state as worst in the nation. In a state where all children deserve an equal opportunity, nobody should find this acceptable. The budget also does little to close the inequitable state funding gap of what a school should get if all basic education funding were distributed through the fair funding formula. For example, 94 school districts get less than 80 percent of the funding they deserve (some as low as 30 percent) while 95 school districts receive over 200 percent of the funding they deserve. At the rate that Republicans want to address this issue, “fair funding” will be achieved 33 years from now when today’s kindergarten students are 38 years old.
This budget does have $20 million more for pre-K, but only 39 percent of eligible children in our state benefit from high-quality, publicly funded pre-K. This line item needs another $290 million to serve all at-risk children.
This budget increases funding for higher education by 3 percent, but it still keeps Pennsylvania ranked 49th nationally in terms of higher education per-capita funding and 3rd in most student debt. This is not a formula to produce and retain a highly-trained workforce.
This budget provides funding to remove 100 adults with intellectual disabilities, whose parents are too old to care for them, from the emergency waiting list. But the list has 5,143 individuals still waiting. It also does not do anything to reduce the 3,252 individuals waiting for adult autism services.
This budget does include an additional $6.8 million to provide subsidized child care for 1,600 more children, but it did not eliminate the waiting list for the other 9,336 children who still need quality care.
This budget failed to reduce the $227 million overcharge of charter and cyber charter school costs that cause higher property taxes for homeowners. It also failed to implement a reasonable severance tax on Marcellus Shale gas production to protect the environment. This budget failed to fully close the Delaware loophole to provide a fair playing field for Pennsylvania small businesses. This budget even failed to address how to pay for the $800 million in state police services for communities who refuse to take on the responsibility of having a police department.
Gov. Wolf proposed raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour to make it closer to a living wage. This proposal would increase revenues to the state while saving the state public-assistance dollars. In his first budget, Gov. Wolf even tried to do property tax relief, but the Republicans would not compromise. Gov. Wolf tried to address all these areas, but the Republicans refused.
Instead, the Republicans continue to produce budgets that, at a bare minimum, only accomplish the compulsory things mandated by the Constitution and nothing else. If Pennsylvanians want better state budgets that significantly improve jobs, education, the environment, human services, and the economy, they need to change who controls the General Assembly.
Michael Sturla is a Democratic member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.