HARRISBURG - Pay now, or pay more later.

That was the message Gov. Wolf and law enforcement officials delivered Tuesday outside the state prison near Harrisburg to call for more money for early-childhood education, an investment they said has been shown to boost high school graduation rates and reduce the number of people in prisons.

"If you want to make Pennsylvania a place where we have safe neighborhoods and people can grow up and have fulfilled lives - and not end up in places like this - then we need to invest in early-childhood education," said Wolf, surrounded by area district attorneys and other law enforcement officials outside the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill.

"I can't think of a wiser investment," he added.

Wolf made the pitch as he and the legislature continue to grapple over his proposed $30 billion budget and try to meet a July 1 deadline to enact a new spending plan.

As part of his budget, the governor has proposed increasing funding for early-childhood programs by $120 million. That includes an additional $100 million that would help 11,600 more children.

Wolf and others cited studies that show children who participate in high-quality preschool programs are less likely to be arrested for a felony or incarcerated as young adults.

Among them was a report by the national anticrime group Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. It stated that Wolf's proposed boost for early-childhood education could save the state more than $350 million over the lifetime of those children who would now be able to enroll in prekindergarten programs.

The group said it calculated that figure based on a separate, independent cost-benefit analysis showing that on average such programs return a "profit" on early-childhood investments of $26,000 for every child served. The state currently spends just over $2.2 billion on corrections and probation and parole - about 8 percent of the overall budget.

"We've learned that we have to be not just tough on crime, but smart on crime," said Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico.

"Most people in a state correctional institution deserve to be here," he added. "But we know there are things we can do to help and we look for things that are based on evidence. . . . We know from research and our experience that a key indicator as to whether or not someone is going to engage in criminal activity is whether or not they've completed high school. And that path starts early, often determined early on in their academic career."

Wolf has had trouble selling his budget to the Republican-controlled legislature. His spending plan, among other things, calls for increasing the state's sales and income taxes to fund a massive property tax relief program and provide a nearly $1 billion bump in education funding.

Legislative Republicans said Tuesday that it is one thing to go around the state advocating for laudable programs, quite another to find the money to pay for them.

"What he doesn't tell anybody is how he plans to pay for it," said Steve Miskin, spokesman for the House Republicans.

On Tuesday, Wolf cited the array of law enforcement officials beside him - many of them Republicans - and argued that certain public policy ideas transcend political considerations.

"I know that place across the river in Harrisburg is built for conflict," said Wolf, referring to the state Capitol. "As it should be - this is a democracy, and we should be arguing with each other. But when we talk about early-childhood education, and using that as a way to fight crime, we are all in this together."

acouloumbis@phillynews.com

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