Yes, Pa. can afford to spend that money. The bigger question: Should it? | Opinion

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By Mike Folmer

Snap your fingers.  Snap them again, again, and again.

Now, imagine having a fistful of $1,000 bills in your other hand.  Under the 2019–2020 General Fund budget, Pennsylvania will spend over $1,000 ($1,078.05 to be exact) each second.  Imagine spending those $1,000 bills you’re holding each and every second for the next year.

Total, approved General Fund spending for the new fiscal year that began July 1 is $33,997,395,000, or $93,143,547.95 a day; $3,880,981.16 an hour; $64,683.02 each minute, and $1,078.05 every second.

However, General Fund expenditures are just one piece of overall state spending.  When you add federal and specially designated funding, total spending tops $80 Billion. These additional outlays are covered by a host of special funds, including:  Motor License Fund, Lottery, Horse Racing Fund, Capital Budget, debt service funds, and various other stewardship and singular-purpose funds.

Education remains the largest element of the General Fund budget:  $13,127,581,000, or 38.6 percent of the total state budget. This is in addition to federal and local tax moneys (mostly school property taxes – another big issue for another time).

Under the state’s current basic education funding formula (yet another big issue for another time), appropriations to school districts total $6,255,078,997, or an average of $12,510,158 per each of the 500 school districts.

While some say the Commonwealth shortchanges schools, I continue to believe taxpayers have been very generous to education. When I was first elected, the state education budget was $9,937,864,000.  Today, it’s $13,127,581,000, an increase of 32.1 percent or an average growth of $265,809,750 each year during my time in office.

I’ve never voted for a state budget that didn’t include an increase for education. However, I remain a strong advocate of educational choice because a student enrolled in kindergarten when I was first elected would have now graduated. My 12 years in office often seems short.

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However, for that kindergartener who’s now graduating, it’s the foundation of his or her basic education over that same twelve years. It will be a big factor in each students’ future.  No matter how much money we spend, no student should be forced to stay in a school that’s failing or otherwise doesn’t meet his or her educational needs.

After education, human services is the next largest part of the state budget at $12,704,313,000, or 37.37 percent of total, approved spending. These expenditures cover a myriad of programs and services, including:  medical assistance, children’s health insurance, long-term living, and mental health services.

Whenever we begin the budget process, we invariably hear:  “We can afford it.”  Sometimes, the calls for “investments” (aka “spending”) result in the need for “resources” (aka “taxes”).  From the New Deal to the Great Society to universal health care, advocates have said the richest nation in the world is capable of paying for various programs.

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Under the new state spending plan, little attention was paid to the “we can afford it” arguments. When we go down those roads, it becomes an ongoing challenge to continue to pay for new programs and services in future years.

Such debates too often become rancorous as those who pay oppose higher taxes and those who receive the benefits don’t want less. Meanwhile, those who favor higher taxes often say “it’s just a few cents more.”

But they never talk about the hundreds and thousands of dollars already paid in federal, state, and local taxes.

With the passage of the 2019–2020 state budget, it won’t be long until we start to hear again: “We can afford it” as deliberations for next year’s state budget begin.

State Sen. Mike Folmer, a Republican, represents the 48th Senate District, which includes parts of Dauphin, Lebanon, and York counties. He writes from Harrisburg. 

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