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7 ideas to improve Pa. with unprecedented funding in the state budget | Opinion

From funding schools fairly across the state to helping hospitals recoup expenses, Pa. legislators have a rare opportunity to think big.

The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg.
The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Between American Rescue Plan funds and unexpected tax revenue, the Pennsylvania budget has about a $10 billion surplus, an unprecedented amount of money for the state to allocate in its budget. The Inquirer checked in with thought leaders around the state to hear their ideas for what legislators could do with that money in key areas.

Interviews by Elena Gooray, Abraham Gutman, Daniel Pearson, and Erica Palan. Quotes have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Stop a slow-moving massacre

“Gun violence is a slow-moving massacre in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia’s homicides so far this year are up more than 70% from this time in 2019. Harrisburg had the deadliest year on record in three decades. York led 19 comparable cities in gun violence.

Right now, cities, schools, and community groups have limited resources to meet this worsening public health crisis through local programs to prevent, intervene, and stop the spread of gun violence. The General Assembly can change that by investing $100 million to address a crisis that has only gotten worse during the pandemic.

Street intervention models use local residents to intervene before a shooting occurs. Mentor programs teach conflict resolution. Enhanced workforce development provides alternatives to targeted community members. And trauma-informed care programs at hospitals support victims. These types of evidence-based programs have significantly reduced violence in cities like Oakland, Baltimore, and Minneapolis. They can do the same in Pennsylvania if the General Assembly invests in safer communities.

The Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence estimates an $85 million investment over eight years in Philadelphia would save more than 1,100 lives and cut $11 billion in societal costs. That is worth it for the safety of our community and a bargain for the commonwealth.”

Adam Garber is the executive director of CeaseFire PA.

» READ MORE: 10 ideas to stem the tide of Philly’s gun-violence crisis | Opinion

Help rural hospitals recoup expenses lost during COVID-19

“The legislature should consider the current state of hospital finances in Pennsylvania. From mid-March of 2020 through July of 2020, when elective surgeries were shut down and no one was coming to the emergency department, and outpatient departments were closed, hospitals saw an estimated $5 billion shortfall in their operating margins.

There has been state funding to support that, which the hospitals are very grateful for. However, what we have found with the rural hospitals is that the parameters around that funding were restrictive enough that there were things that the hospitals could not spend it on. The devil is always in the details.

I was talking with one rural hospital administrator who told me the thing that no one realizes is that in order to distribute vaccines, they have to close down a portion of the hospital. That’s an opportunity cost. Then they have to bring in additional staff to be able to manage everyone as they’re coming in, and then they need to have sequestered space for them to sit for 15 minutes to see if there’s a reaction. They need to have EMS on hand, and so on.

I understand that hospitals can’t recoup all of their funding lost over the last year, but if there was a formula set up to distribute these surplus funds to hospitals, that would go a long way. And, it also sends a message that the state knows and cares.”

Lisa Anne Davis is director and outreach associate professor of health policy and administration for the Pennsylvania Office of Rural Health.

Support Black and brown businesses

“The most urgent need to me is making sure that we have minority businesses ready to participate in those infrastructure dollars when they flow. So do we see more Black and brown job creation and business opportunities available for that work? This is another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to prepare Black and brown business owners to participate in one of the largest infrastructure bills that will come out of D.C. in the past decade and a half. Cities have to be prepared for that and states should be prepared for that. It links back to Biden’s agenda around creating a more diverse and inclusive use of federal spending.

I don’t think any city is as prepared as Philadelphia is to do that. We have some of the greatest practitioner groups here — the Economy League, the Enterprise Center, the Urban League, groups who are ready to help minority business meet that capacity demand. But the state and city should also be prepared to say they’re going to make the incremental investments necessary — and provide access to fair procurement processes and capital — to ensure those businesses have great balance sheets.

Both city and state also have to be focused on what infrastructure is going to look like, and how we maximize our ability to get infrastructure dollars into the state of Pennsylvania [while] redefining infrastructure. Yes, it’s the typical highways, bridges, roads. But it’s also, say, improving broadband, it’s creating the model for 21st century learning and education that won’t necessarily be all brick and mortar.”

Keith Bethel is a fellow at the Lindy Institute of Drexel University, chairman of the Board of Directors for the Philadelphia Urban League, and a board member of the Philadelphia Equity Alliance.

» READ MORE: Racing against time to save South Philadelphia’s ‘Black Main Street’

Reimagine Regional Rail

“Transportation is a sector that, along with education, should be one of the top priorities. For a state of our size, we really lag behind.

We need a stronger commitment to statewide mobility. Amtrak has proposed new routes for Pennsylvania, but the state could use a strong intercity bus network, like Colorado’s Bustang, especially given how many private operators have gone under during the pandemic. The state also needs to invest in the smaller local transit agencies in the state.

In Philadelphia, we need the state to fund trolley modernization. There’s close to 100,000 riders who are impacted, and the current trolleys are at the end of their service life. This project doesn’t just save the trolleys, it brings a higher-capacity, higher-quality level of service as well.

This money also presents an opportunity for SEPTA to reimagine Regional Rail. The paradigm of serving 9-5 commuters from the suburbs to the city has to change.

It is important that Harrisburg doesn’t take this as a moment to pour money into highway widening projects. An example of this is in Harrisburg, where they are widening the beltway despite opposition from local leaders. These widenings bring a lot of long-term costs and induce more driving.”

Ben She is transit steering committee member with the advocacy group 5th Square, which fights for better transit service, mobility, and equity for all present and future riders.

Undo decades of shortchanging schools

“When I look at Harrisburg right now, we have an opportunity of a lifetime. I don’t know if I will ever see this much money come into the state. I’ve not seen it in the years that I’ve been around, and I’m not sure I will live to see it again.

My message right now to the governor is take all of this new money for education and put it through the fair funding formula. Not a piece of it. Take all of it.

If you take all of it, you have a better chance of ensuring that underserved school districts receive adequate funding. If you don’t do that we’re going to be exactly where we’ve been over the past several decades. We have a long history here of inadequately funding and shortchanging both urban and rural areas when it comes to funding education. If you invest money into a school system, and you give them the resources, you see that the education level and the performance absolutely goes up, and we saw that in rural areas we saw it in suburban areas, and we saw it in city areas.

We see about 3,000 students a year here at the Urban League and if you saw how outdated the books are. And the lack of extracurricular activities, the lack of equipment. We better invest in education throughout the commonwealth, because we now need the money and the resources to make up for a year that we’ve lost due to the pandemic.”

Andrea Custis is president and CEO of the Urban League of Philadelphia.

» READ MORE: Wolf sticks by $1 billion plan to close Pa.’s education gap, minus his proposed tax increase

Invest in mothers with substance use disorder

“The legislature would be wise to invest funding into expanding diversion programming, such as Drug and Family Treatment Courts and safe care management programs for moms with substance use disorder. There is inconsistent funding and support across the commonwealth for these types of programs right now, but they work. It’s hard to say what the total cost is. But you need at least one case manager, as well as funding for supportive services like housing and transportation.

We are very definitely a ‘desert’ when it comes to these services, as many rural communities are. There aren’t nearly enough providers, especially services for adolescents. And the providers we do have are often county-based and very underpaid.

To give you an idea of scale, in Northumberland County, we have about 90,000 people and about 1,000 babies born a year. Roughly 1 in 7 babies are born here to a mom with substance use disorder. We have one safe care manager and that is currently enough to serve the county. As far as case/safe care managers, we’re looking at a $60,000 to $80,000 per employee cost.

School resource officers should be trained in trauma-sensitive, evidence-based home visiting for children who are truant and struggling behaviorally. Community school coordinators support critical student and family social needs. It costs about $80,000 to $100,000 to hire one community school coordinator per school or school district.”

Joanne Troutman is the president & CEO of Greater Susquehanna Valley United Way.

Reduce carbon emissions in schools

“The Philadelphia schools alone need $5 billion just to remediate health harms and aging and broken buildings. Fixing these schools with healthy, green retrofits would be good for the health of students, teachers and staff, the climate, and the low-income people whose schools are in the worst shape. If we upgraded buildings with health materials, modern all-electric systems, and removed all the toxins, we’d get a ton of health benefits, you’d help eliminate carbon pollution, and the schools would be way more comfortable. As much money as the system is ready to spend, I would do it.

According to one recent estimate, Pa. schools are responsible for 1.7 million metric tons of carbon emissions.

These schools could also then become disaster safety hubs for neighborhoods. In addition to solar panels, the schools should have local batteries that save any unused energy. If there’s a massive heat wave, and the power goes down in the neighborhood, your school becomes a community cooling center. If the grid goes down with a bunch of big storms, you know you will be able to use schools for shelter. So we have all these problems, both in Philadelphia and around the state, and you can retrofit schools in a way that eliminates pollution and is way better for students, staff, and communities. You’re literally investing in the future in every possible way.”

Daniel Aldana Cohen is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania where he directs the Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative.