Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf presented his budget proposal to the Republican-controlled General Assembly on Tuesday, calling it a “blueprint for unleashing a new wave of prosperity for our commonwealth.” Some of Wolf’s priorities include a new program for college scholarships, full-day kindergarten at all public schools, and spending $1 billion to clean up environmental hazards, including asbestos and lead, in aging public schools. “Including nearly $600 million in supplemental cash for the current fiscal year, Wolf is seeking authorization for another $2.6 billion in new spending, or 7.6% more,” The Associated Press reported.
This is Wolf’s sixth budget proposal, so he’s no longer a stranger to the process. And he’s seemingly learned to choose his battles following acrimonious impasses in his first term that left lawmakers and other Pennsylvanians bruised.
There’s much to unpack regarding Wolf’s proposals, the initial Republican response, and the necessary and healthy debates we must have between now and passage of the 2020-21 fiscal budget. (And we hope it’s a budget that’s passed on time, before the start of the fiscal year July 1.)
For today, we want to focus on a few of Wolf’s initiatives that we believe make good sense for Pennsylvania.
— Wolf is asking for a $1 billion investment toward fixing “toxic school buildings” and for a streamlined process to allow school districts to apply for those funds.
“All across our commonwealth, children ... walk into school buildings loaded with lead paint, asbestos, and other dangers,” Wolf said in his budget address. “We know that environmental factors directly affect student performance. And we know how to fix this problem.”
The safety of our children should be paramount, so we hope there is swift bipartisan action to rid our public schools of these dangers.
— In Wednesday’s LNP | LancasterOnline, staff writer Gillian McGoldrick explained that “Wolf wants to move $204 million from the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development Trust Fund to create a new tuition program to serve low- and middle-income families with a full-time student in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education school.”
The “trust fund” essentially consists of gambling taxes that are collected and returned to casinos that host live horse racing. Putting that money toward helping families put children through college and reducing the crushing debt many graduates experience sounds great to us.
— Wolf said he is “calling for the expansion of universal, no-cost, full-day kindergarten so that it’s available for every child in our commonwealth.” Administration officials told the AP that about 72 of the state’s 500 school districts still do not provide it.
National studies show that full-day kindergarten puts children in a better position for success in elementary school and can close the achievement gap for students from low-income and at-risk families.
We hope the General Assembly can find the funding to make this a reality, and we appreciate state Sen. Scott Martin, R-Martic Township, indicating that he’s willing to research the topic. He can ask not just educators but also military leaders, judges and district attorneys about the benefits of early childhood education.
— Also related to Pennsylvania public education, Wolf wants $435 million in new investments, starting with a $100 million increase in the fair funding formula and also including a $25 million increase for special education.
In our view, that approach may be an improvement — but it's not a sufficient one. As we have stated repeatedly, the fair funding formula enacted in 2016 must be fully implemented as soon as possible. In October we noted that less than $700 million of the $6.7 billion for basic education is flowing through the formula. That means that some of our schools — including those in the School District of Lancaster and Conestoga Valley School District — are seriously underfunded.
Chronic underfunding harms both students and taxpayers, because when school districts must meet ever-increasing costs, school boards are forced to raise property taxes. And then the brunt of the burden falls on the shoulders of those who can least afford those hikes — senior citizens and homeowners with low incomes. We need a bipartisan push in Harrisburg to fix these inequities in education funding.
Wise use of funds
Of course, it must also be understood that new spending — however necessary it might be — cannot be viewed in a vacuum. Unfunded mandates can be especially harmful in the state’s poorer regions.
And we must be wise about any additional burdens on taxpayers. The Lancaster County House Republican delegation made that clear in a joint response to Wolf's budget proposal: “We agree on funding programs that work and have proven results. But not all the current government programs taxpayers have already been asked to fund are performing as they should. Pennsylvania’s families cannot just create and fund new items in their budget when they have already busted their current budgets. They don’t understand how a government continues to spend when it has already blown through what they have given it.”
And state Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Mount Joy, added this, in a tweet: “While many of the ideas that Governor Wolf presented today in his Budget Address are laudable, I voiced concerns about the level of new spending and borrowing in the $36.1 billion budget plan.”
We hope our elected officials can blend the important goals of being fiscally smart but also assisting our most vulnerable residents as they work in bipartisan fashion on this budget.
This is a crucial year for Pennsylvania. Wolf and our legislators must understand that no budget can best serve our state unless it is accompanied by meaningful property tax reform.
It won’t be easy. But that is the elephant in the room that can no longer be ignored in Harrisburg.