Gov. Wolf is right to insist on lasting budget solutions
March 21, 2016 12:00 AM
Matt Rourke/Associated Press
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf speaks with members of the media about the budget in December at the state Capitol.
By Marc Stier
Pick a random editorial published in a random newspaper in Pennsylvania over the past century, and the odds are pretty good that, among other things, it will call for government officials to focus on the long-term public good instead of short-term political gain.
Today we have a governor in Pennsylvania who is doing just that, and yet some editorialists are criticizing him. They are focused on short-term issues — the failure to enact a full-year budget — rather than the long-term good for Pennsylvania.
The short-term budget issues are real, as the imminent closure of schools in some districts around the state illustrate. But they are symptoms of the deeper problems that Gov. Tom Wolf seeks to address. Again and again he has asked us to look forward and recognize the importance of both solving the state’s ongoing fiscal crisis and funding education.
The fiscal crisis underlies the education funding problem. If the state continues on the path it’s now on, it will run a deficit of $300 million to $500 million in the current fiscal year and at least $1.8 billion in the fiscal year that begins on July 1. This deficit is built-in, the result of Pennsylvania each year bringing in less revenue than it takes to meet current needs.
This structural deficit will continue to rise, year after year, if nothing is done. Short-term solutions that have hidden deficits in the past cannot paper over deficits of this magnitude. And that includes the Republican proposal put forward last Tuesday, which adds a bit to education funding this year at the cost of increasing the structural deficit next year.
Much of the state’s general fund budget is fixed by contractual obligations and by what the state must spend to keep federal funding. Education funding is one area where there is some discretion. And that is why a $1.8 billion deficit will not be closed without a billion-dollar cut to education.
We know too well the results of such a huge cut. Twenty-thousand teachers, guidance counselors and school nurses — some of whom have just been hired as we slowly restored the billion-dollar cut of 2011-12 — would lose their jobs. Art, music, science and technology classes — including some that have just been restored — would be eliminated. Standardized test scores, which suffered after the last round of cuts and haven’t risen since, would drop again.
More than ever, the success of our children and economic growth in our state depends on providing high-quality education. And that is impossible when kids in the richest school districts have opportunities that kids in the poorest districts don’t. That our schools are so unequally funded is precisely why some schools in Pennsylvania are nearing the breaking point today, while others have been able to ride out the year with far fewer reductions in teachers and course offerings.
And make no mistake — school funding can make an enormous difference to school success.
The schools in Pennsylvania that are well-funded are also the ones that succeed. And the states that do best in international comparisons are those, like New Jersey and Massachusetts, where the investment is actually higher in schools in low-income communities than in high-income communities.
These are the long-term issues that Mr. Wolf has rightly insisted the Legislature address. There is no doubt that, but for the reluctance of extremists on one side of the aisle in the House to consider voting for any taxes, of any amount, for any purpose, the bipartisan compromise budget the state Senate passed by a 43-7 vote would have passed the House with a bipartisan majority.
Mr. Wolf’s veto of half of the inadequate school-funding bill enacted by the General Assembly is creating short-term problems. But a governor has few tools at his disposal when dealing with a recalcitrant General Assembly unwilling to make the public investments Pennsylvanians need.
Editorialists — and, more important, citizens — should remember all the times they have called for political leaders to be willing to risk their careers, take the heat and exert exactly this kind of leadership. Rather than raise the white flag and call for one more inadequate budget, they should stand with the governor and insist that a bipartisan majority pass a responsible budget, one that raises the revenue to fix the structural deficit and supports Pennsylvania’s schools for the long term.
Marc Stier is director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.
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