Commentary

This year, we need a Pa. budget for the people – not just the powerful | Opinion

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By Marc Stier

The General Assembly has two more weeks to pass a budget for next year.  This year, the budget can be—and must be—different than recent budgets.

This year we are coming out of a pandemic that created vast suffering for workers, local businesses, and our communities. Millions of Pennsylvanians took on hazardous work during the pandemic at very low wages. They deserve just compensation. They deserve a reward. 

Thousands of small businesses remain on the brink of closing. They deserve help. Communities all over the state are trying to return to normal. They need assistance. 

And all of the suffering has revealed deep inequities in our society.

Before the pandemic, some of us were already aware that …

  • millions of Pennsylvanians are not paid wages that lift them or their families out of poverty.
  • educational opportunities are not distributed fairly to kids who live in low- or moderate-income communities, or who are Black or Hispanic. 
  • the state invests less in higher education than almost all other states and, as a result, Pennsylvania ranks at the bottom of college affordability and at the top of student debt.
  • the state ranks near the bottom of all states in public health spending.
  • most working people cannot afford to take time off from work to care for their family members who are sick or in distress.
  • affordable childcare is not available to many Pennsylvanians.
  • too many Pennsylvanians are stretched thin by housing costs.
  • and that our roads, bridges, and transit systems are crumbling because their maintenance is so underfunded.

Now, because of the disaster created by the pandemic, more of us know this. And the vast majority of Pennsylvanians want to solve these problems. 

Imagine a Commonwealth in which all kids can go to a good school and get the post-secondary education or training that is right for them. 

Imagine living in a community in which every worker has a decent wage; dignified work; and access to affordable housing, health care, and childcare. Imagine how much more equal—and productive—our economy would be if everyone had the means to live a decent life and we ensured that all children could receive the education and training that lets them, and us, benefit from their talents. 

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This year, we have the means to create a Commonwealth that more closely resembles our dreams. Thanks to a fast economic recovery, aided by the American Rescue Plan (ARP), the state is running a $3 billion surplus.

And it has received $7.3 billion in federal American Rescue Plan funds. That gives the Commonwealth $10 billion to invest in us — to address the immediate needs of recovery and begin to fix problems that the General Assembly has failed to address for years, if not decades. And spending that $10 billion would not cost us a dime in taxes. 

House and Senate Democrats have put forward bold plans to address these issues. But the Republicans, who hold the majority in both chambers of the General Assembly, have said practically nothing.

Once or twice, a Republican leader or spokesperson has said we have deficits to fill. And they have blamed Democrats for those deficits. 

These talking points are not just untrue, they are the moral equivalent of claiming that the vote in Pennsylvania in 2020 was tainted in some way. 

There is no deficit this year and there won’t be one next year. There is a huge surplus and a massive federal recovery plan waiting to be tapped this year and the next for the benefit of Pennsylvanians. 

And, if deficits do return when federal money runs out, the cause will not be overspending. State spending as a share of gross state product fell 12 percent below the average between 1997 and 2011.

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Any deficits in the future will be the result of the deep cuts made by Republican General Assembly majorities in corporate taxes, which has cost the state more than $4 billion a year. Those tax cuts were sold as the path to economic growth and job creation. But they have no more attained that goal in Pennsylvania than in other states where tax cuts led to deficits not prosperity.

Why won’t the Republican leaders of the General Assembly act? 

Sadly, the answer appears to be that Republicans don’t share our dream of a Commonwealth without glaring economic inequality; inadequate education at all levels; and unaffordable housing, health care and childcare (And perhaps, more cynically, they simply don’t want President Joe Biden or Governor To Wolf to have a success of any kind.).

We don’t have to settle for a government that does little but keep taxes low for the richest Pennsylvanians and powerful corporations.

This year, we have resources from the federal government to move closer to the Pennsylvania of our dreams. Shame on the Republican-led General Assembly if it stands in our way.

Marc Stier is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Budget & Policy Center, a progressive think-tank in Harrisburg. 

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