This weekend, America celebrates the 245th birthday of the great experiment that was hatched on a hot July day over near 5th and Chestnut, the never-ending struggle “to form a more perfect union.” But just 100 miles up the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the lawmakers charged with making sure that the Cradle of Liberty still runs in the 21st century have yet again honored our nation’s traditions of democracy in the breach.
A Pennsylvania state budget for 2021-22 — a nearly $40-billion blueprint crafted by Republican leaders with solid majorities in both houses — suddenly appeared on the morning of June 25, and after the apparently brittle document enjoyed the shortest possible exposure to the sunlight of public scrutiny, was hastily passed by midnight and sent on to Gov. Wolf for his signature.
The GOP framers of this lesser political document had good reason to limit debate over their one major task of the year to a hot summer Friday when sensible people were probably stuck in traffic to the Jersey Shore. A lengthy and open public conversation about the new budget might spark some hard questions about why Harrisburg is leaving a whopping $7 billion on the table when so many small businesses and essential workers are struggling to get back on their feet from 15 months of pandemic chaos.
Why, an informed voter might ask, if given the time, does a state with so many pressing needs — from ancient, toxic school buildings, to a university system that is collapsing despite ever-skyrocketing tuition, to our pothole-scarred highways — think the best use of an unexpected windfall is basically a passbook savings account? More fundamentally, what is the point of even having a state government when apparently it doesn’t see its mission as helping middle-class Pennsylvanians resolve their everyday problems?
“They really don’t believe in government helping people,” Marc Stier, director of the left-leaning Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, told me this week — noting that Republican legislators who’ve spent most of the past year on a soapbox complaining how government lockdowns had hampered small business owners then failed to package federal relief dollars to help those constituencies, as some nearby states have done.
It’s too late now to do anything about the 2021-22 state budget, or what for the moment looks like the missed political opportunity of a lifetime. Gov. Wolf — who could point to a few small breadcrumbs for his education agenda, including a $200 million hike in school aid and an additional $100 million to balance underfunding for lower-income districts (he’d asked for $1.3 billion) — signed the budget bill on Wednesday, hours before the new fiscal year.
But it’s important for a couple of reasons not to forget what just happened in Harrisburg, as much as the state’s GOP establishment might like that. In the short run, the unspent dollars still exist. As the Keystone State enters a critical election year in 2022 with new district maps, voters will have an opportunity to turn this battleship of uncaring government around — if they can overcome their traditional reluctance to know who their legislator is, let alone the issues.
But the saga of the Pennsylvania budget and the unspent $7 billion also exposes the harsher truths of modern Republicanism that stretch well beyond our state’s rust-green capitol dome. It turns out it wasn’t really prudent, checkbook-minded fiscal conservatism behind these decades of killing Pennsylvania’s social safety net and starving our elementary schools or once-great universities. It’s not that they believe in balanced budgets, because what is more imbalanced than a $7 billion wad of cash spilling our front pocket? It’s that they don’t believe in government for the people.
Or, as the brilliant essayist Adam Serwer put it in a 2018 piece that’s now been expanded to a book (that you should absolutely buy), the cruelty is the point of the modern conservative movement. In a recent New York Times essay, Serwer explains how today’s GOP “strategically exploits vulnerable Americans by portraying them as an existential threat, against whom acts of barbarism and disenfranchisement become not only justified but worthy of celebration.” In Harrisburg, Republicans are working a two-track approach that includes both pushing voter suppression laws that would undo the changes that boosted turnout in 2020, but also by not crafting a budget with aid that would excite and motivate “vulnerable Americans.”
Pennsylvania’s failure to invest its cash windfall — a combination of surprisingly strong revenue that exceeded expectations, as well as the federal aid from the President Biden-backed $1.9 trillion relief package — in its citizens is particularly galling when compared not only to our Northeastern neighbors but even some conservative “red states.” Across the Delaware in New Jersey, their Democratic governor Phil Murphy just signed a package that includes both $235 million in new relief to help small businesses like restaurants or child-care centers reopen, but also grants a $500 tax rebate to middle-class parents. But even Florida — with its Trump wannabe Gov. Ron DeSantis — issued a $1,000 stimulus check to teachers and first responders for their work through the COVID-19 crisis.
In Harrisburg, Republican lawmakers justified their inactions with word salads around fiscal prudence that make little sense in the current moment, and with the argument that any significant new spending in 2021-22 would be little more than a set-up for tax increases down the road — despite the fact that none of the detailed progressive aid plans called for any such future hike. “Those people who want to spend every nickel this year are setting us up for a major tax increase in the future,” GOP Sen. Dave Argall of Schuylkill County insisted last week. “This makes sense.”
No, it makes no sense. Look, even progressive Democrats agreed that it’s wise to put some dollars in the state’s Rainy Day Fund — the Wall Street roller coaster will probably careen off the tracks one of these days, right? — but not an obscene $2.5 billion, not when people are suffering. Harrisburg Democrats crafted proposals that would invest the money in urgent public goods that wouldn’t require future tax increases, including a $712 million grant program for those ailing small businesses, and $2.4 billion in infrastructure investments like repairing those toxic schools buildings that have been sickening kids and their teachers for years.
Republican kids attend Pennsylvania’s crumbling schools, too, so why wouldn’t their elected representatives want to peel a few bills from their bulging bankroll? The short-term logic is that spending measures that would be popular with voters — like those stimulus checks or tax rebates we see in other states — would be seen as political wins for not only the lame-duck Wolf but also for Biden, going into a midterm election in which the GOP needs an angry, riled up electorate to gain more power both in the state capitol and in Congress.
But the bigger issue is that if Pennsylvania voters saw that state government could make a positive difference in their lives, they might not only reward this Democratic philosophy at the polls —they might also demand more sweeping changes, like undoing the low corporate rates and targeted incentives for sometimes wretched large industries including fossil-fuel polluters that have funneled billions of dollars of would-be revenue back to Republicans’ large donors. Even more frightening to GOP leaders would be the alternative to the cruelty-is-the-point politics of blatant voter suppression, or to whipping white suburbanites into a frenzy over teaching about racism in schools: an alternative of kindness to the forgotten middle class.
The potential flaw in the GOP’s cynicism is that the unspent dollars are giving progressive Pennsylvanians a clear cause to rally behind in the 2022 election. In past cycles — like 2020, when Republicans strengthened their grip on Harrisburg even as Biden was carrying the presidential contest — too many voters have failed to make that connection between their day-to-day struggles and an indifferent state government. New efforts like the New Pennsylvania Project, consciously modeled after Stacey Abrams’ remarkable turnout machine in Georgia’s underserved communities, hope to change that dynamic.
Let’s hope so. The politics of cruelty in the corridors of state government will only last as long as apathy continues to rule on Election Day. This July 4 is the ideal moment to contemplate not only the restoration of a government by the people and for the people, but one that can recognize the simple humanity of the public that elects it.
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