HARRISBURG, PA — In his 2020-21 budget proposal, Gov. Tom Wolf has promised investments in the commonwealth’s education system, workforce development, senior citizens and the environment. …
HARRISBURG, PA — In his 2020-21 budget proposal, Gov. Tom Wolf has promised investments in the commonwealth’s education system, workforce development, senior citizens and the environment. He proposed a general fund budget of $36.1 billion, an increase of more than $1 billion from last year, raising state spending by about 4 percent. The proposal also includes some efforts that he has unsuccessfully tried pushing in the past, like increasing minimum wage from $7.25 to $12 and eventually $15.
About 36 percent of the general fund is slated to go toward PreK-12 education. Wolf’s administration proposed universal, free, full-day kindergarten for all. With that, Wolf is looking to add $25 million to the PreK Counts program, which provides education for at-risk youth, and $5 million to the Head Start program.
“There is not a parent in this chamber who doesn’t want every opportunity—every opportunity—for their children. And there isn’t a parent in this commonwealth who should have to settle for anything less,” Wolf said in an address to the PA General Assembly.
Some of his other education-related proposals have been more controversial. For example, his plan to repurpose $204 million from the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development Trust Fund for the Nellie Bly Tuition Program has upset both Republican lawmakers and those in the equine industry. Resistance to Wolf’s plan was made vocal at a recent horse show in Lebanon County. There they argued that Wolf was going back on a promise he made in 2017 when he “forbade” the horse trust fund to be used for other purposes. Republican Rep. Tom Mehaffie told the crowd, “We’re going to work hard in the Legislature to ensure no one is going to touch your trust fund.”
“This scheme would destroy an industry that provides a $1.6 billion economic impact and supports an estimated 16,000 to 23,000 jobs in the agriculture, manufacturing, construction, retail and hospitality industries here in Pennsylvania,” said Pete Peterson, executive director of the PA Equine Coalition.
Wolf also incited the ire of some parents for his proposed charter school reforms. Wolf’s reforms would apparently save school districts $280 million a year.
“Pennsylvania’s Charter School Law, passed in 1997, established public charter schools with greater flexibility to support innovation in partnership with the public education system,” according to Wolf’s budget brief. “Since then, some charters have strayed from this original purpose by engaging in questionable operational practices and exhibiting poor academic performance. Additionally, charters are a major uncontrolled cost-driver for local school districts, resulting in higher property taxes across the state.”
In his General Assembly address, Wolf called some charter schools “little more than fronts for private management companies.” The characterization has triggered angry responses from the parents of charter school students who took to Facebook and complained that they’re being treated as “second class” for not sending their children to public schools. Ana Meyers, executive director of the PA Coalition of Public Charter Schools, called the reforms “punitive and discriminatory.”
Another highlight of the proposed budget is a $1.2 billion increase in human services spending. This would bring human services spending to $14.4 million, 40 percent of the overall budget, and the largest chunk for any agency.
“The Department of Human Services will redesign its employment and training programs to better meet the needs of clients and their families as they move toward career pathways and family-sustaining wages, reducing their need for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits,” the budget brief reads.
County human services departments around the commonwealth have been faced with a zero percent increase in state funding over the past seven years. In Wayne County, this lack of funding has made it difficult for employees to meet the needs of residents and has been costly for the local government, which recently added $1 million to its bottom line to account for human service department needs.
Wolf’s plan to increase state spending across the board is going to be challenged by Republicans in the months leading up to the official budget’s adoption. “What we’ll do is, we’ll go back to the recipe for success, we’ll pull him back to the middle, we’ll get a fiscally responsible budget that does not ask the taxpayers to invest more in state government,” said Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman.
Sen. Lisa Baker, who represents Wayne and Pike counties, called the proposal a “mixed bag” with “fewer objectionable provisions in contrast to previous budgets,” but she is still resistant to the amount of spending the governor is proposing.
“Listening to the proposal for $1.5 billion dollars in spending, a billion dollars in borrowing, how does that fit our long-term obligations?” she asked.