The Pennsylvania House (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)
If it’s June, it must be budget season in Pennsylvania. This year the budget debate has a twist, however – the Commonwealth has a budget surplus thanks to an influx of federal funds plus higher-than-expected revenue collections.
There is no shortage of ideas of what to do with this surplus, but Republicans in the General Assembly have made it clear their plan is to continue to use it to offset projected future deficits.
As the Capital-Star reported last week, however, an academic paper issued by a think-tank focused on responsible government spending thinks little of Pennsylvania’s approach so far. The report warns of an impending “fiscal cliff” facing states when federal COVID relief funds run out and singles out Pennsylvania for being one of the most irresponsible states when it comes to the utilization of these funds.
How the Commonwealth has used these relief funds up to this point demonstrates the majority party’s chosen nickname of “conservative” should be corrected to “selfish.” Instead of dedicating funding for infrastructure improvements or for one-time enhancement purposes, such as supplemental pay for front-line workers, Pennsylvania has put all its emergency federal funds into revenue replacement.
In other words, the General Assembly has chosen to use this influx of federal dollars as a slush fund to avoid making the hard choices of raising revenues or cutting state programs. And the goal of Republicans appears to be to lock any further federal funds, along with any surplus from increased state revenues, into an impenetrable vault so they can continue to not make decisions in future years.
The problems with this approach are numerous. Federal emergency COVID funds are limited and the ability to use them to replace necessary state revenue will end. Pennsylvania budgeteers may be able to buy a year or two of no tax increases or spending cuts, but eventually the money will run out and deficits will re-emerge.
Meanwhile, critical problems are being ignored. Utilizing these federal monies for one-time projects could give many communities needed infrastructure improvements. Another critical use of these funds would be as seed money to address the coming demographic challenges Pennsylvania faces.
We can project the makeup of our population in the future – it is going to be older, with the percentage of Pennsylvanians over the age of 65 estimated to grow from around 18 percent to over 25 percent in the next 10 years. We know the kind of services this population will require, ranging from adequate housing to assistance with daily activities to enhanced medical care.
We also know we are not prepared for this change. We do not have the housing infrastructure. We do not have sufficient transportation options. We do not have a workforce prepared to handle the increased need.
Far-sighted elected leaders would choose to plan for the future. Legislators could use a portion of the budget surplus for efforts to attract more workers to direct care services, to incentivize the construction of affordable housing options for older Pennsylvanians, or to make our transportation system safer for everyone.
Such a plan would require a commitment of more than just the limited emergency federal dollars. It would mean Pennsylvanians would be asked to change their approach to choosing their elected leaders to ensure they factor the future needs of the Commonwealth into their decision-making.
But this is where the selfishness of the current majority of the General Assembly, and the people that elect them, surfaces. When it comes to fiscal issues, the attitude of the Republicans who control the budget process is very simple.
No change to the tax structure of the Commonwealth to make it more fair for the people of Pennsylvania. No increase in revenue to address the underlying budget issues that the influx of federal funds is masking. And no concern for a population that is growing older and will strain state services in the near future.
The attitude of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives to the future needs of the Commonwealth was demonstrated in an incident which occurred after the primary election. State Rep. Mike Jones, R-York, defied party leadership and endorsed primary challengers to two incumbent Republican representatives in York County.
In retaliation and punishment for his disloyalty the Republican leadership of the House stripped Jones of membership on three of the four committees on which he served. He was kicked off of the Commerce, Finance, and Labor and Industry committees.
But House Republican leadership did not bother removing him from his “other” committee – Aging and Older Adult Services.
Few other actions could better demonstrate the disregard House Republicans have for issues impacting older Pennsylvanians – or the future of the Commonwealth. And it is a grim reminder of how these issues are likely to be dealt with by the General Assembly in the 2022-23 state budget.
Opinion contributor Ray E. Landis writes about the issues that matter to older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Follow him on Twitter @RELandis.
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