HARRISBURG, PA — Last week, Gov. Tom Wolf delivered his 2021 budget address from within his home in Harrisburg, rather than in the state Capitol in front of other politicians and officials. He …
HARRISBURG, PA — Last week, Gov. Tom Wolf delivered his 2021 budget address from within his home in Harrisburg, rather than in the state Capitol in front of other politicians and officials. He noted the difference this year at the top of his speech.
“It’s perhaps the only time in the last century that a governor has not made the annual budget address in person, in the Capitol with much of official Harrisburg arrayed in front,” Wolf said. “Instead, today I am talking to you directly... And maybe this is the way it ought to be done.”
As he would go on to show, the format of the address wasn’t the only thing different about his proposed budget. Calling for a substantial tax increase on the commonwealth’s top-earners, a $1.35 billion boost for education spending and the legalization of recreational marijuana, some analysts are calling this Wolf’s boldest, most progressive budget proposal of his tenure.
The Republicans who control Pennsylvania’s General Assembly seem to agree. They, however, have chosen different words to describe the proposal: “crippling,” “irresponsible,” “unsustainable,” were a few.
Wayne County’s Rep. Jonathan Fritz (PA-111) took to Facebook to voice his opposition to the governor’s proposal, taking issue first with the proposed tax increase.
“[Wolf] wants to increase the personal income tax by almost 50 percent—raising that rate from 3.07 percent to 4.49 percent!” Fritz wrote. “Knowing that so many Pennsylvanians are struggling during this pandemic, we should be talking about reducing financial burdens, not additional taxes.”
But according to the Wolf Administration, by expanding tax exemptions and forgiveness, only the wealthiest third in the commonwealth would end up paying higher income taxes. The other 67 percent of Pennsylvanians, according to the governor, would see their taxes remain the same, decrease or be eliminated.
“This isn’t about pitting the rich against the poor and the middle class. This is about asking folks who have already made it to shoulder a little more of the burden so that folks who haven’t made it yet have a better chance to do so,” Wolf said in his address. “If you’re one of [the top earners], think back to the early days, when you were just starting out, when you hadn’t yet overcome the barriers that stood between you and your success.”
Should Wolf’s proposal see the light of day, it would provide total tax forgiveness to single people with salaries of $15,000 or less, and married couples who earn $30,000 or less, while providing a $10,000 allowance for each dependent.
The level of tax forgiveness would decline by a percentage point for each $500 added to those thresholds. To illustrate the formula, the administration said that families with two children making less than $84,000 will receive a tax cut, and a family of four making $50,000 will have their taxes eliminated.
Republicans in the House and Senate remain highly dubious about the plan, maintaining that it would negatively affect workers in Pennsylvania and small businesses.
Wolf made education a prime focus of this year’s budget. His proposal includes an extra $1.35 billion in funding for public schools to pay for teacher salaries, operating costs, supplies and other primary expenditures.
In addition to the funding boost, Wolf wants to reform how schools receive their funding. Currently, only 11 percent of state funds flows through the state’s fair funding formula, which directs state money to school districts based on multiple factors including student enrollment and the ability of the community to fund its districts. The governor is proposing that 100 percent of existing funding flows through this formula, not just newly appropriated funds, as it’s currently spelled out in the rules.
The plan comes as Pennsylvania faces a lawsuit filed in 2014 in which several districts accuse the state of funding education inadequately. The Washington Post found that, in 2015, Pennsylvania had the most inequitable per-pupil funding method in the country.
“Per-pupil spending in the poorest school districts is 33 percent lower than per-pupil spending in the wealthiest school districts,” the Washington Post reported.
Charter school reform
Wolf also used this most recent proposal as an opportunity to again push for reforming the state’s charter school system. Currently, the state’s public school districts have to foot the bill when their students opted for private online education. This cost districts collectively about one billion dollars over the 2017-18 school year.
Among other reforms, Wolf now wants to establish a flat rate for cyber charter schooling.
“Currently, cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania charge school districts between $9,170 and $22,300 per student per year,” according to the administration. “The governor’s plan establishes a statewide cyber tuition rate of $9,500 per student per year and will better align tuition with the actual costs of providing an online education. This reform will save school districts an estimated $130 million annually.”
The charter school industry has derided Wolf’s plan, as it’s done in the past to similar proposals. Lenny McAllister, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, alleged that it would hurt “disadvantaged and vulnerable students.”
“The governor’s plan would hurt some of Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable children, including students with special needs,” McAllister wrote. “In Philadelphia, Wolf’s proposal would result in school district students receiving twice as much funding for their special education services than students with those same needs attending a public charter school.”