Schools, deficit and pandemic juggled in Pa. budget proposal
HARRISBURG — Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania are working to assemble a budget plan that would use billions in federal pandemic relief and surplus state tax dollars to help prop up existing programs, boost aid to public schools and inject cash into sectors hard-hit by the pandemic.
The extra cash sloshing around has brought a blitz of requests on how to use it, while Democrats are asking for farther-reaching on taxes and schools to accelerate the state’s population growth.
It is not all found money, especially as Pennsylvania faces a shrinking working-age population in the coming years who will foot a growing bill for expensive human services.
Growing demands: Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, said the state’s finances are under extreme pressure to meet growing demands on health care and human services, in particular long-term care for the elderly.
“This is the problem that we have,” Browne said.
Even maintaining current programs by using all of the $7.3 billion from the American Rescue Plan bill signed by President Joe Biden in March and $3 billion in surplus state tax collections over the next three years will leave Pennsylvania with a deficit, Browne said.
Republicans also worry that tax collections are headed for a slowdown after vast amounts of federal relief works its way through the economy and consumer spending cools down.
The new fiscal year begins July 1, and lawmakers say they expect to wrap up work on the budget plan next week.
Democratic plans: While Republicans are behind closed doors considering which hard-hit sectors to help with the federal aid, Democratic lawmakers have rolled out expansive plans to use it. Those plans include things like improvements to school technology and aging school buildings, or grants for housing programs and frontline workers.
Highway builders, hospitals, nursing homes, affordable housing advocates, youth violence prevention advocates and others are also seeking a share.
Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, said he would like to help nursing homes and affordable housing efforts, as examples of sectors that are struggling in the wake of the pandemic.
Decisions on how to use the money are being influenced by work in Washington to assemble a wide-ranging infrastructure funding plan that could bring billions more federal dollars to Pennsylvania.
Aid for schools: Then there is Gov. Tom Wolf’s top priority that Republicans say they are trying to accommodate. The Democrat in February asked the Republican-controlled Legislature for a $1.35 billion boost in aid to public school operations and instruction, or 20% more, on top of the $6.8 billion they currently receive.
The majority of that $8.1 billion would go out through a 6-year-old school funding formula designed to iron out inequities in how Pennsylvania funds the poorest public schools. Only a fraction goes through it now.
“The governor has a plan out there and I’m not critical of it, I just don’t think we can do it all at one time,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairperson Stan Saylor, R-Windsor Township.
A motivator is a pending lawsuit accusing the state of unconstitutionally neglecting its poorest public schools.
Republican lawmakers see Wolf’s proposal as a way to head off a court decision that could take the decision out of the Legislature’s hands by ordering them to ramp up aid to public schools.
For their part, Pennsylvania’s public schools have received roughly $6.2 billion over the past year from three federal pandemic aid bills, according to House Appropriations Committee figures.
But school boards have continued to press Republican lawmakers to fix what they say is an increasingly debilitating problem of being forced to overpay for tuition to charter schools and cyber-charter schools for the children who go there.
Republicans have their own education demands, preparing legislation that would expand state taxpayer support for private and religious schools by hundreds of millions of dollars. They also are advancing a plan to slash the state’s corporate net income tax rate.
Democrats had hoped to use the billions of dollars to attack the state’s long-term demographic challenges, said Rep. Matt Bradford, the House Appropriations Committee’s ranking Democrat.
That means making the state more business-friendly and attacking inequities in school funding to attract employers and young families. Republicans haven’t been receptive, Bradford said.
“We want to grab this opportunity to do long-term investments that will deal with long-term challenges down the road,” Bradford, R-Montgomery, said. “We believe it’s short-sighted not to take this opportunity.”