By Gary Blumenthal
As Congress and the Trump administration continue to fail in negotiations to enact a COVID-19 assistance package, the recent example of bi-partisan cooperation in Pennsylvania could be an instructive example for our national leaders to follow.
Faced with a nearly $5 billion budget hole, Republicans and Democrats negotiated effectively with Governor Tom Wolf and passed a remaining fiscal year budget with minimal damage to existing state programs. By using a combination of federal CARES Act funding and Rainy-Day Funds, leaders were able to come together to keep the Commonwealth moving ahead. Compare Pennsylvania’s example to the endless drama and stubbornness in Washington, D.C., where conversations started in late summer but continue failing to achieve anything resembling a consensus.
By no means have Pennsylvania’s governor and Legislature solved our state’s economic and human crises. At best, they were able to offer a barebones budget that kept the state afloat but did not address many ongoing systemic issues in our Commonwealth.
Even though legislators must feel like they are caught in an endless budget cycle, the process for the Fiscal year 2021-22 budget is already underway. Governor Wolf’s advisors are focused on priorities and recommendations for a February 2021 presentation to the General Assembly.
By then it is hoped and expected that the Biden administration and Congress will enact aid for state and local governments, including a renewal of the CARES Act. With that help from Washington, the Commonwealth will be better able to craft its way forward.
As the next legislative session begins returning, Speaker of the House Bryan Cutler and the new Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman will have the opportunity to further demonstrate their commitment to good governance by addressing long festering state issues that have continued from previous years.
The plight of front-line workers, such as intellectual disability Direct Support Professionals, has only gotten worse over the past five years, as the state funds contracts based on five-year-old cost data.
Over the past five years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics consumer price index, the cost of living has increased over 9.81 percent since 2015. In that time, Pennsylvania has raised its employees’ salaries each year, including the state’s most recent increase of 16% over four years for its state employees. In that same period, community intellectual disability/autism providers saw one increase that was based upon outdated data, followed by four years of zero increases while rent, food, insurance, utilities and other costs felt by workers continued to rise at nearly 10 percent.
There is a great irony in how Pennsylvania leaders treat community ID/A Direct Support Professionals. The state general fund only provides half of the cost of these salaries while the federal government pays the other half. The average Direct Support Professional salary in Pennsylvania is $12.83 per hour of which the state pays just $6.40.
It is time for the leadership of the General Assembly led by Speaker Cutler and Senate President Pro Tempore Corman to take the lead in urging Governor Wolf to show the same generosity to local community ID/A providers as has been shown to state employees.
There are strong leaders in the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Now is the time we need them to lead the Commonwealth in fairness to frontline workers.
Gary Blumenthal is the vice president of InVision Human Services, in Wexford and Reading, Pa. He is a former member of the Kansas House of Representatives; a former chair of the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Task Force on Developmental Disabilities; the former Executive Director, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the President’s Committee on Intellectual Disability and a former member of the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency.