By Gene DiGirolamo
As the state considers next year's budget, legislators must remember that people and communities hang in the balance.
Each month brings more bad news about shortfalls in revenue that had been expected in state coffers. At this point, it's clear that revenues for the next two fiscal years will be $1.3 billion short of what the Corbett administration expected.
We now face a fundamental choice: Arrive at a balanced budget by making even bigger cuts in education, health care, environmental protection, and human services or invest in programs that grow the economy and create jobs by raising new revenue.
Given these choices and the current economic circumstances, why would we leave money on the table?
I cannot support further cuts to education and vital service programs, so I went to work and developed the Roadmap for a Stronger Pennsylvania, a proposal that puts families first in a responsible, sustainable approach to the budget.
The plan raises desperately needed revenue from a severance tax on natural-gas drillers and a tax on smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes. It also closes corporate tax loopholes, freezes the capital stock and franchise tax, fully enforces sales taxes from Internet sales, and adds an additional $185 million by improving our State Store system instead of privatizing it.
We should also accept the federal government's offer to completely cover the cost of expanding Medicaid to provide health insurance to half a million low-income working families, which would also bring in substantial new revenue. In addition to directly pumping $4 billion a year into the state's economy, it would also create 35,000 to 40,000 jobs in health care.
By refusing to leave money on the table, my budget proposal would allow the state to invest in education and services that Pennsylvania families need and want. My plan would:
provide $90 million for a variety of education programs;
replenish the Human Services Development Fund by $84 million;
restore various health line items that were proposed to be eliminated, including funding for lupus, Tourette syndrome, epilepsy support, adult cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, and sickle cell programs;
increase crime-fighting efforts through the attorney general's drug task force by $5 million;
increase veterans' housing assistance by $3 million;
and add $20 million for emergency drug and alcohol treatment.
Legislative leaders in both the House and the Senate have indicated that they are open to considering the raising of new revenues, including enacting an extraction tax on natural gas drilling. Many members of the General Assembly have told me they appreciate the solid ideas contained in my proposal. I hope the governor also will be open to alternative ideas that achieve a balanced state budget with a responsible mix of new revenues and prudent savings.
The state budget cuts of the last three years have devastated families and communities across Pennsylvania. Even as property taxes rose, schools laid off 20,000 educators and cut programs. Low-income families lost health care, and the elderly and disabled watched key support programs evaporate. Local governments reduced services and laid off police officers and firefighters.
As members of the General Assembly get down to the business of producing the state budget, we must remember that the fate of real families and communities in our districts hangs in the balance. With my Roadmap for a Stronger Pennsylvania already on the table, we have good ideas. We now need to make the right choices.