The only mistake Pennsylvania can make during this budget season is not spending big. That should be easy considering that tax collection revenues exceeded estimates by a whopping $3 billion and the American Rescue Plan brought the state another $7.3 billion.
But nothing is easy in Harrisburg, where the Republican controlled legislature is hellbent on obstructing anything the Democratic governor proposes.
The list of areas that needed big spending before the pandemic hit Pennsylvania is a tragic embarrassment:
Pennsylvania had a $4.6 billion education spending gap
More than 600,000 people earned less than the federal poverty line and another nearly 1.4 million earned above it but below needed cost of living
1-in-4 Pennsylvanian’s had student debt (an average of $40,000)
Nearly 90,000 households a year faced evictions
Then coronavirus made every one of these issues worse, not better. Pennsylvania processed more than six million federal and state unemployment claims since the pandemic started — and the state unemployment rate continues to be above the nation’s. Two reports published last week warned that the housing crisis is going to get worse after the pandemic, with more people finding themselves unable to afford safe and stable housing. After a year of virtual learning, schools are going to need more resources to help students catch up. More than 800,000 households racked up $743 million in debt to the major electric and gas utilities, putting them at risk of shutoffs. The list goes on and on.
The pandemic exposed the weak underbelly of the social and economic safety net in Pennsylvania — a state that has a far too low minimum wage, no requirement on employers to provide paid medical leave, and no general assistance program.
Consider the latter, in 2019 Pennsylvania Republicans eliminated Pennsylvania’s General Assistance program. The program was one of the only cash-assistance programs in the state for people without children, serving about 11,000 Pennsylvanians most of whom are disabled adults with no income who can’t work. The budget of the program was a grand total of $40 million — or 0.4% of the $10 billion the legislatures have to play with. The General Assembly can reinstate a program that helped keep some of Pennsylvanians most vulnerable individuals afloat for what is not much more than a margin error within the surplus.
In early June, a coalition of advocates demonstrated in Harrisburg under the banner of the Poor People’s Campaign, to demand that lawmakers restore general assistance, expand affordable housing, and bolster the staffing at unemployment offices to help process claims.
Many Democrats in the Pa. legislature want this money to bolster the state’s struggling education funding. A group of Democratic lawmakers from throughout the state — including multiple lawmakers who represent Philadelphia such as Sen. Vincent Hughes, Sen. Nikil Saval, and Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler — are demanding that the surplus go toward fixing toxic schools. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf is sticking by his $1 billion plan to narrow the education spending gap. Originally Wolf proposed paying for the education plan by increasing the state income tax on Pa.’s top third earners. In response to the surplus, Wolf is ditching the increase — which received no traction with Republicans.
Meanwhile, the Republican plan for the surplus seems to pretend that there is no surplus. A spokesperson to Republican House Majority Leaders Kerry Benninghoff told Spotlight PA that the state’s fiscal position is not as “rosy” as Democrats think and added: “While Republicans have and will continue to ensure our commitment to funding education, we are not in a position to use what financial flexibility we do have to make promises beyond our ability to fulfill them.”
Republicans have opposed an increase in income taxes on the highest earners and a severance tax on fracking to fund education. Now they seem opposed to spending literally free money. If there is a bipartisan commitment to funding education, one side it is not showing.
Pennsylvania has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in this year’s budget cycle. School infrastructure and education spending would be a critical investment in the future. With so many worthy causes, the General Assembly really can’t go wrong — as long as lawmakers spend big.