Pa. Gov. Josh Shapiro delivers his first budget address to the General Assembly on Tuesday, March 7, 2023 (Photo by Amanda Mustard for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star).
Listening to Gov. Josh Shapiro deliver his annual budget message last week, it was refreshing to hear a newly elected leader assess his prospects for success pragmatically, rather than babble about an imaginary mandate for major change.
In his address, Shapiro told the state Legislature, in which Democrats and Republicans control separate chambers, that results-oriented voters were responsible for their seats.
“They cast their ballot for you, and for me,” the governor said. “Through their votes, they asked us implicitly to come to the table, put aside the gimmicks or partisan litmus tests and deliver commonsense solutions to the very real problems that we are facing every day.”
Even though change surrounds the Capitol – new leaders Lt. Gov. Austin Davis, state House Speaker Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, and Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, shattered barriers to leadership diversity – Shapiro was more interested in achieving gradual progress across numerous policy areas.
After all, this is the first time since the 1950s that one party has controlled the governor’s mansion for three consecutive terms.
And, the Commonwealth is running a $12 billion surplus, $5 billion of which is in the state’s rainy-day fund.
Nothing is broken politically or fiscally, the governor’s message seemed to say, but there is a lot of fixing to do.
Shapiro presented a budget of $44.4 billion in total state government spending for the fiscal year that starts July 1, a 3.8% increase over that of the current fiscal year. Additionally, he provided five-year projections of recession-proof fiscal health, based on what he said were conservative economic estimates.
The governor attempted to reach out to all Pennsylvanians and, in an 80-minute speech, very nearly addressed the concerns of everybody.
Elderly renters, farmers, the indigent accused, workers without a college degree, entrepreneurs, the state police, minimum-wage earners, childcare workers, park-goers, nurses, police officers, and teachers – each received recognition and support from the state’s chief executive.
Senate Republican leaders appeared responsive to Shapiro’s call for cooperation. “The governor said a lot of things that we can all get on board with,” Ward said. “We just need to find out how we’re going to pay for those things.”
On the other hand, we can expect a strong GOP pushback against Pennsylvania’s involvement in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), ordered by former Gov. Tom Wolf and currently under court review.
RGGI establishes a market for coal-fired power plants and others to purchase pollution credits, which supporters say will incentivize industry to adopt renewable sources of energy. Republicans argue RGGI will weaken the state’s energy industry and increase consumer electric bills.
Perhaps on purpose, Shapiro did not mention RGGI in his message to the Legislature, but his budget anticipates Pennsylvania will join the program and reap hundreds of millions of dollars from those willing to pay for releasing carbon emissions.
The governor had no choice but to discuss public school finance, an issue where major reform is not only needed but demanded by the judicial branch.
As Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer ruled last month, Pennsylvania’s reliance on local property taxes produces large differences in spending between wealthy and poor school districts, resulting in unequal educational opportunities and outcomes that violate the state constitution’s guarantee of a “thorough and efficient” education to all students.
Agreeing with Jubelirer’s decision, Shapiro called upon all stakeholders to develop a comprehensive education plan, so that new policies could be agreed upon in the budgets for 2023-24 and 2024-25.
Somewhat surprisingly, the governor offered a $567 million increase for basic public education, covering the costs of inflation but landing nowhere near the additional $4-5 billion estimated to bring about true educational equity.
Advocates for poor school districts, ranging from big cities to rural areas, thought that Shapiro missed an opportunity to make a substantial down payment on fulfilling the promise of the state constitution.
The governor’s address made no mention of school choice alternatives to public education. On the other hand, by not ruling out such options, Shapiro appeared open to including them in education funding talks with Republicans.
Not open for debate, the governor asserted, are proposals seeking to curtail abortion rights, LGBTQ rights, worker rights, and voter rights.
Those issues are “nonstarters,” he said.
After watching national and state leaders rave on about phony issues (the 2020 election results) and perceived cultural “crises” (“transgenderism” and “wokism”), it was reassuring to hear a governor speak about real issues facing real people, and what government can do for us.
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