A community garden that has taken root on a once-vacant lot in Philadelphia’s Brewerytown section (Image via VisitPhilly/The Philadelphia Tribune).
In spite of it happening a week late and controversies arising about a number of funding issues, the Pennsylvania General Assembly once again managed to pass a budget. As always there was some good, some bad, and some ugly in the process.
Perhaps the worst of the bad was the delay in passing the budget gave Republican leadership an opportunity to rush through proposed Constitutional amendments to potentially restrict access to abortions and voting, among other bad ideas. The continuing efforts of these legislators to try to usurp the authority of the other two branches of government is a grim reminder of the threat to democracy that exists in today’s politics.
A surprising piece of good news was the inclusion in the budget of a new program, the Whole Home Repair initiative. Whole Home Repair is a response to a problem Pennsylvania faces with its housing stock. In the Commonwealth’s big metropolises, medium-sized cities, and smaller boroughs, the homes of many Pennsylvanians are aging along with their residents.
Whole Home Repair is particularly important for older Pennsylvanians. These are the individuals and families who are commonly referred to as “house rich, but cash poor.”
Many of them own their properties, but struggle to get by on their Social Security benefit, and, if they are lucky, a small pension.
The homes they live in are often in need of extensive repairs. Leaking pipes, cracked ceilings, and drafty windows are problematic for anyone, but they can be especially burdensome to older homeowners who are physically unable to do the kinds of repairs they performed when they were younger, but cannot afford the expense to pay someone to do them.
This is where the Whole Home Repair program will make a difference. A $125 million appropriation in the state budget will enable qualified homeowners to utilize up to $50,000 to have these repairs done. It will enable these individuals and families to continue to live in the communities where they want to be instead of being forced to relocate, likely to a communal living situation where, because of their limited incomes, they may soon exhaust all their resources.
Creating and funding Whole Home Repair acknowledges the demographic challenges facing the Commonwealth and establishes an innovative way to address the question of where our older population will live with a solution that not only helps individuals but improves entire communities.
What may be the most shocking aspect of Whole Home Repair to followers of the Harrisburg political scene is it began as an initiative of a first-term Democratic State senator from Philadelphia, Nikil Saval, and garnered bipartisan support.
WHYY-FM’s report on the approval of the funds quotes Republican Sen. Dave Argall, who represents Schuylkill County, as noting “Any community that has faced economic distress (needs this bill).
Unfortunately, there was not unanimous support for this initiative, and it is where the ugly aspect of the budget debate and the pervasive atmosphere of self-interest in the halls of the General Assembly comes into the story.
Despite being negotiated by the Republican leadership, the state budget did not win the approval of the entire Republican caucus in the General Assembly. State Sen. John DiSanto, R-Dauphin, was one of those who voted against the final spending package.
In a news release announcing his opposition to the budget, DiSanto specifically highlighted the Whole Home Repair initiative as a “particularly egregious example of excessive government spending.” He went on to refer to Saval as an “avowed Democratic Socialist legislator from Philadelphia” and claimed the program is an “insult to the low-income homeowner who has worked and saved for years to maintain their home.”
DiSanto theoretically represents the city of Harrisburg and other small, economically stressed communities in Dauphin and Perry counties, such as Duncannon, Halifax, and Newport, whose residents will benefit from the funding available through the Whole Home Repair program.
It turns out DiSanto voted against the entire state budget – a budget funding state government, which employs a large number of the residents of his Harrisburg-based district – and the chief reason he cites is the creation of a program to assist owners of older homes which he feels threatens to negatively impact the hefty bottom line of his company.
DiSanto’s vote against the state budget epitomizes the ugly side of Pennsylvania’s state budget process, our political system, and many of the selfish individuals enmeshed in it. The bright side is this time the darkness was defeated, and Pennsylvanians have a new, innovative, state initiative.
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