York lawmakers discuss accountability, education funding in state budget
Spending accountability, education funding and cost drivers were key issues on the minds of local lawmakers at York County's recent 2018 Spring Legislative Luncheon.
Eugene DePasquale, the state auditor general and a York County resident, also shared his thoughts on marijuana as a barrier to opioid addiction during the luncheon, hosted by the York County Economic Alliance at the Wyndham Garden Hotel in West Manchester Township on Thursday, May 17.
The annual gathering serves as a check-in with legislators on what will be the hot topics in the county in the year ahead, but participants also heard a national update from a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-Dillsburg.
Budget surplus: "The biggest thing that's happened recently in Washington is the Tax Cut and Jobs Act," said Bob Reilly, Perry's deputy chief of staff.
Following its passage, Reilly said, April saw a surplus of $218 billion, which he called the largest monthly budget surplus in U.S. history.
And the federal unemployment rate of 3.9 percent is the lowest since 2000, he said.
Within the act, Reilly said opportunity zones — incentives for private long-term investments in "communities that face economic hardships" — could have a positive local impact.
Perry and U.S. Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Bob Casey, D-Pa., have been working together to bring that benefit to York City.
The federal budget includes $15 million in funding for the Codorus Creek, which Reilly says is just the first step in long-term restoration.
Safety: At the state level, DePasquale gave his report on audits concerning child abuse workers, untested rape kits and the opioid epidemic.
In an audit of ChildLine in 2016, there were 43,000 unanswered calls from the child abuse hotline found for the previous year.
"Every single one of those phone calls can be life or death for a child," he said.
Last year's State of the Child report showed a 90 percent turnover in staff at York County's Office of Children, Youth and Families — a trend mirrored in counties across Pennsylvania, he said.
DePasquale's current action plan is to make changes in state children and youth protection by updating training, improving coordination between law enforcement and children and youth workers and reducing case loads from 30 to 10 per worker.
Another audit found 3,800 untested rape kits in Pennsylvania — a number that is now under 900, DePasquale reported.
"The average rapist is a serial rapist," he said, adding that 95 percent of all rapists have raped or attempted to rape multiple people.
Testing rape kits is crucial to get these offenders into the FBI database so they can be identified even when crossing state lines, he said.
An audit of the state's spending on drug rehabilitation revealed that Pennsylvania is not tracking spending at the clinic level, which means money might be going into centers that are not effective.
Any 30- to 60-day program is not effective, he said, clarifying that it needs to be 90 days.
"I am pro-drug rehabilitation," DePasquale said, as an alternative to putting non-violent users in prison.
Marijuana: In a self-professed "controversial" move, the auditor general also expressed his support for the regulation and taxation of recreational marijuana to combat opioid addiction.
"States that have done this have seen their opioid addiction drop," he said.
If Pennsylvania follows what has been done with legalization in Colorado, it would create between $325 billion and $350 billion in revenue without raising taxes, he said.
"It would be a culture shift in Pennsylvania," he said, while pointing out that he believes voters are ahead of the politicians in support.
Accountability: In a panel moderated by WITF radio host Scott LaMar, state lawmakers shared their thoughts on the state budget.
"Everyone wants more money for their program, but nobody has been able to justify why things aren't working the way they should work," said Sen. Stan Saylor, R-Windsor Township, calling for accountability in spending.
Sen. Mike Folmer, a Lebanon County Republican who represents part of York County, echoed his sentiments, saying if the state is funding programs, it needs to see results.
"I feel like Bill Murray in the movie 'Groundhog Day,'" he said, noting that in his 12 years on Capitol Hill, nothing seemed to change.
Rep. Kate Klunk, R-Hanover, agreed, adding that there needs to be accountability.
When looking for budget cuts, legislators need to look at special fund surpluses that have been essentially put into savings, rather than first going after the taxpayer, she said.
Education: Rep. Carol Hill-Evans, D-York City, praised Gov. Tom Wolf for his increase in education funding.
Wolf has raised education funding each year, LaMar noted, which Hill-Evans said has made a difference in her own district — the 95th — with more teachers and aides available for students with special needs.
Folmer challenged the need for more funding, saying the government already spends $1,000 per second on education, and it still doesn't seem to be enough.
Some schools are grossly overfunded or underfunded, he said, and the state government has not addressed that issue yet.
But it could just be a matter of shifting money around to make existing funding more efficient, Folmer admitted.
School funding and programs can be supported by area businesses with the help of EITC, or earned income tax credits, Klunk said.
Hanover's chamber of commerce recently teamed up with two local school districts for its first year of a new apprenticeship program.
Cost savers: Lawmakers recognized a need to make the budget more efficient.
Klunk said that the No. 1 cost driver is welfare and that adding work requirements to medical assistance and food stamp programs will ensure the able-bodied are getting jobs.
"Our industry is thriving," she said, pointing to the numerous jobs open in Hanover.
She said merging government agencies is another way to use money effectively, and Hill-Evans agreed, adding that she is in favor of some agencies merging within the prison system.
Hill-Evans also brought up the idea of a severance tax on drilling companies as a cost-saver, which Saylor strongly opposed, saying the industry already is heavily taxed.
Pennsylvania collects an impact fee on each natural gas well, but it does not collect a tax based on the amount of the gas coming out of those wells, as most other natural gas-producing states do.
Tax increases are not the solution, Saylor said, circling back to accountability within government spending as a more effective way to reap savings.
On that note, LaMar mentioned a Senate bill (SB 181) that would allow for performance-based budgeting and a review of the efficiency of tax credits — and legislators were in agreement that efficiency in spending is a non-partisan issue.