Harrisburg Drone

The path to the state budget deadline seems clear. A budget compromise deal has been sent to the Pennsylvania Senate for consideration. 

THE ISSUE

The Pennsylvania House passed a $34 billion budget deal Tuesday and sent it to the state Senate, which is expected to approve it (the deadline is midnight on Sunday). The general spending bill passed in the House by a vote of 140-62. “While Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration is on board with the plan, many Democratic lawmakers in the minority have objected,” Ed Mahon of PA Post reported.

State Sen. Ryan Aument of Mount Joy, secretary of the Senate Republican Caucus, tweeted his satisfaction with the budget deal Wednesday: “Pleased to see this pro-growth budget prioritize agriculture programs and higher ed funding,” particularly for institutions including Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology.

Democratic state Rep. Mike Sturla of Lancaster was not so pleased. “This is a status-quo budget,” he said during the House floor debate, according to LNP’s Gillian McGoldrick.

Sturla added: “I’ve come to expect the mediocrity of the Republican-gerrymandered majority.”

Republican House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler called the budget deal “a compromise” and pointed out, “ ‘Compromise’ is not a dirty word.”

We’d agree with that.

Disappointingly, municipalities without police coverage will not be asked to pay a fee for using the Pennsylvania State Police. So free-riding municipalities will continue to get a pass.

The budget deal contained no tax increases — the sales tax will remain at 6% and the personal income tax at 3.07% — but it also failed to offer relief to senior citizens getting crushed by rising real estate taxes. They deserve relief.


Education funding

Many local school boards raised taxes in recent years because the state was failing to pay its share of education funding. So we’re glad to see the budget deal includes $160 million more for K-12 basic education funding and an additional $50 million for special education funding.

We’re also pleased to see the deal includes an additional $25 million for early childhood education programs. Quality pre-K is essential.

As LNP’s McGoldrick reported in Wednesday’s edition, the budget deal would add nearly $10.59 million in total funding across Lancaster County’s 16 public school districts, with additional funding for special education.

That is great news.

But until all basic education funding is distributed through the fair funding formula that was enacted in 2016, school districts such as Lancaster and Conestoga Valley will continue to be seriously short-changed.


Funding for Stevens

Thaddeus Stevens would receive “one of the loftiest increases in the budget,” McGoldrick reported. A 27% increase from the last fiscal year would give it $18.7 million in overall funding and help the two-year technical school offer enrollment to a great number of students.

We are heartened by the state House’s support of this state-owned institution, which trains young people for the types of jobs that are in great demand in the commonwealth — welding, plumbing and electronic engineering, for example. More than 95% of Thaddeus Stevens graduates find jobs, which come with a median starting salary of $42,500. We were disappointed that Wolf’s budget proposal had no increase for Thaddeus Stevens and are glad the House found room for Thaddeus Stevens President William Griscom’s request for additional funding.


‘Rainy day fund’

In the wake of higher-than-expected revenues this fiscal year, the budget passed by the House would place about $250 million of that surplus into a “rainy day fund” that had been running low, McGoldrick reported.

The Lancaster County Republican delegation said in a joint statement that saving money when revenues are good makes fiscal sense, and we agree. “Just as families across the state must save for unexpected events and downturns,” that statement read, “lawmakers and government cannot be allowed to spend more than they have and expect taxpayers to continually bail them out.”

While there are urgent needs in Pennsylvania that the $250 million could arguably have addressed, we agree that fiscal prudence is the correct call.


Agriculture

Phil Gruber, news editor of Lancaster Farming, an LNP Media Group publication, reported that the budget deal approved Tuesday includes $159 million for agriculture programs — a $19 million increase over last year.

The bill, he noted, “includes new money to implement parts of Gov. Tom Wolf’s PA Farm Bill proposal, including centers of agricultural excellence, disaster preparedness and response, and the PA Preferred branding program.”

Farmers here and across the commonwealth need help. We’re glad they’re getting it.


General Assistance

An ugly debate erupted in the state Senate on Wednesday over what turned out to be the GOP’s successful effort to eliminate the General Assistance program.

According to The Associated Press, Senate Republican Leader Jake Corman called Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman a “partisan hack” at one point. And Democratic Sen. Anthony Williams shouted, “When you punch somebody in the face and they punch you back, stop whining about it.”

So much for civility.

The heated debate was over a Depression-era program that, as the AP explained, “temporarily provides $200 a month to people deemed unable to work” because, for instance, they are disabled or in addiction treatment or are domestic violence victims.

The cash assistance program offers “some level of dignity and independence for those who don’t qualify for traditional welfare,” The Philadelphia Inquirer’s John Baer noted in a column published Tuesday in LNP.

Baer argued passionately for the program, and raised, we believe, a strong point: The program is being killed, in part, because some lawmakers claim it doesn’t demand adequate accountability from those who avail themselves of it.

We’re talking about monthly cash grants of $200 to some 11,000 Pennsylvanians desperate for a little assistance to help them get through difficult times.

As Baer pointed out, lawmakers can claim up to $189 a day — a day — in tax-deductible per diem expenses. And they can file for those expenses without submitting receipts detailing how they spent the money for which they seek reimbursement.

Lawmakers apparently believe accountability is for other people — for thee, not for me.


Voting machines

Meanwhile, the AP reported Tuesday that “it remains unclear” whether the state Legislature will approve funds to help all of Pennsylvania’s counties acquire new — more secure — voting machines, as Wolf has directed them to do ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

Earlier this month, Lancaster County selected VerityVote from Texas-based Hart InterCivic as its new voting system. But it’s not known how the full $2.7 million cost will be covered. Democratic county Commissioner Craig Lehman told LNP’s Carter Walker that he has implored local state legislators to cover the expense. Cutler said Tuesday that discussions with the Wolf administration about paying for the machines are still ongoing.

We strongly believe that the state should reimburse the cost of new voting machines across the commonwealth. The security of our elections is of the utmost importance to our democracy.