Update on the state budget from State Rep. John Lawrence
By Steven Hoffman
As Pennsylvania moves into the fourth month without an enacted state budget, it is time for another update on the situation.
For the past several years, the state budget has been just under $30 billion, including approximately $10 billion annually for K-12 education. Governor Tom Wolf is proposing an increase of nearly $4 billion in state spending for the 2015-16 budget year. How does the Governor propose paying for this large increase? Specifically, he is fighting for a 20 percent increase in the income tax, and he wants to increase the sales tax rate and make hundreds of additional items and services taxable. That would amount to an estimated 40 percent increase in sales tax revenues. These are real numbers that would hit every individual and business in Pennsylvania hard.
Gov. Wolf has advocated for his tax-and-spending proposal since March. I do not agree with the Governor on his proposal, nor do many of my House and Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle. After months of dialogue between all sides, the House and the Senate passed an on-time, balanced, fiscally responsible state budget. It was immediately vetoed by the governor.
The vetoed budget would have increased funding for K-12 education by $100 million and fully funded the state’s contribution to teachers’ pensions at $1.7 billion. Importantly, the vetoed budget did not ask the Pennsylvania taxpayer for a single dime in increased income or sales taxes. Instead the budget re-prioritized existing revenues and counted on additional recurring revenue from the sale of the state liquor store system. By vetoing the entire state budget, Gov. Wolf put the state of Pennsylvania on the path toward a government shutdown.
Some of society’s most vulnerable people, including people with intellectual disabilities, have seen funding cut off as a result of the Governor’s stance. Incredibly, some in the Legislature have encouraged this and see it as a negotiating tactic, insisting that using at-risk people as “leverage” is somehow appropriate as a means to an end. This viewpoint, often espoused in debate on the House floor, is completely reprehensible.
The House has tried more than once in recent weeks to provide emergency funding to critical state budget items. In August, we attempted to override key line items in the Governor’s veto, including funding for food banks, rape crisis centers, and schools. This effort was defeated on a party-line vote. Last week, the General Assembly passed an emergency funding bill and sent it to the Governor’s desk. The Governor has said he will veto this as well, but has not yet taken any action (as of Tuesday morning, Sept. 29.)
I am incredibly frustrated and disappointed with Governor Wolf. The Governor talks a lot about “government that works,” but his actions have singlehandedly threatened to shut government down. The Governor promotes “schools that teach,” but his refusal to compromise has some cash-strapped school districts across the state (Erie) looking at closing their doors, while teachers are working without pay in other districts (Chester-Upland). The Governor also talks about “jobs that pay,” yet dozens of human service providers across Pennsylvania are laying off staff and taking out bank loans just to keep the lights on. I find the Governor to be pleasant and engaging in our personal conversations, but his obstructionist actions and unrealistic demands for massive additional taxes are disappointing and out of touch with Pennsylvanians on all sides of the political spectrum.
I have been disappointed in a seeming lack of urgency from the Governor's administration to bring the budget situation to a resolution. Legislative leaders and the Governor have met many times for discussion, but more than once the Governor has canceled planned meetings at the last minute. His office has been slow to respond to legislative proposals to bring the standoff to an end. Legitimate offers of compromise, which is so critical to the lawmaking process, have been utterly rebuffed and even attacked by a Governor unwilling to bend on his tax proposals. While the dithering continues, and taxpayers continue to dig into their wallets, school districts and service providers across the state are left waiting.
So what is the path forward? I am always willing to listen to all sides of a debate, and I am always very interested in hearing from everyone in our community. I saw hundreds of folks at the Penn Township Community Day last Saturday, and very, very few favor the governor’s proposal. My office has been inundated with calls and emails asking me to hold the line on taxes and stand firm against increased state spending. I will continue to work with the Governor and members of the Legislature to put forward a budget plan that responsibly funds government while respecting taxpayers. However, I simply cannot support the Governor's unprecedented tax increase proposal.
As your voice in the Capitol, your thoughts and opinions on the budget, and everything else in state government, are very important to me. Please feel free to contact me at JLawrence@pahousegop.com, or call the Jennersville office at 610- 869-1602 or 610-593-6565 to share your views on how you would like to see things proceed. Thank you for the opportunity to serve in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.