Welcome back to budget season in the Pennsylvania General Assembly. The procedure is a bit different this year, as the House of Representatives completed its discussions with the heads of the various state agencies on March 4 before the Senate began to take its turn March 8.
The hearing schedule might be different in 2021, but the state budget process in Pennsylvania has taken on a weary, familiar tone. Divided government continues in the commonwealth and Democrats and Republicans have intensified their bitterness toward each other.
This year’s episode began with Gov. Tom Wolf proposing to manipulate the state income tax system to allow more Pennsylvanians with low to middle incomes to pay less while requiring higher income Pennsylvanians to pay more.
The governor uses a tax forgiveness plan plus an overall increase in the income tax rate to avoid the Pennsylvania Constitution’s prohibition on establishing different tax rates for different income levels.
Unfortunately for the governor and the many Pennsylvanians who would benefit from either the tax forgiveness or the improvements which could be made through the increased state revenues this idea would produce, there is a flaw in the plan.
It would need to be approved by the General Assembly. And the Republican majority has absolutely no intention of approving any type of tax increase on any Pennsylvanian, no matter how much money they make or how much the revenue is needed.
Instead of debating the governor’s plan during budget hearings, the Republicans in the House spent most of their time criticizing the operations of state government under the Wolf administration. They emphasized failures in the unemployment compensation system, castigated the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, and blamed the Department of Health for the deaths of nursing home residents during the pandemic.
The administration is not above reproach on these issues as there has been a lack of nimbleness and urgency in their response. But the seeds of this situation were planted many years ago and the majority party in the General Assembly has continued to fertilize them.
Pennsylvanians who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19 have experienced exasperating delays in getting a response from the Department of Labor and Industry about their unemployment compensation application.
Older Pennsylvanians eligible for a vaccination were unable to schedule an appointment for weeks. The common denominator between the two situations? Automated, unresponsive telephone systems and web sites which cannot answers questions.
State government underwent a revolution in the past decade. Thousands of positions were eliminated as the Commonwealth moved to an online world. Contractors were hired to set up web portals to interact with the public while cubicles in state agencies were emptied.
It seemed ideal for the leaders of the General Assembly. Fewer state employees with pension obligations, more government contracts for private business, and no overall tax increases when “user fees” and gambling revenues could fill in the gaps.
But when a crisis hit there were not enough “real people” to interact with Pennsylvanians who needed assistance and could not get answers from the impersonal, automatic systems.
The budget hearings in the House have revealed the political party which, by and large, does not believe in government, is now complaining about how needed government services are delivered. The proper answer to many of the questions raised in these hearings is when government services are not properly funded, government services suffer.
Of course, no one should believe General Assembly Republicans would stick to their own principles. For many years they have advocated those who use services should fund them instead of the cost being borne by general tax revenues. We now have a situation where a number of bridges across the Commonwealth are in urgent need of reconstruction. Shouldn’t those who use the bridges pay the cost of repairs?
Republicans who represent areas near where the bridge construction would take place certainly do not think so and they began stating their objections during budget hearings. Suddenly the idea of requiring those who would benefit from a safe, newly constructed bridge to bear the brunt of the cost is “unfair” and will “hurt the local economy.”
It was the Republican-controlled General Assembly and Republican Gov. Tom Corbett who set up the Public-Private Transportation Partnership in 2012 making this bridge tolling possible, but recalling history is not a strong suit of our current public discourse.
Stronger-than-expected tax revenues and assistance from the federal government may make this year’s Pennsylvania budget deliberations less dramatic than many feared a few months ago.
But the underlying issues in the Commonwealth still remain. Many Pennsylvanians suffered during the crisis of the past year. And, unfortunately, more Pennsylvanians are set up to suffer during the inevitable next crisis because of inadequately funded government services.
Ray E. Landis writes about the issues important to older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @RELandis.