OP-ED: Why Wolf should veto stopgap budget


Pennsylvania needs a final budget agreement that does what people want. It's simple: Restore school funding with a drilling tax, support local services and give us property tax relief.

That requires the Legislature and governor to want a deal. It's clear the Legislature doesn't.

Rather than compromise with the governor, this week the Republican-controlled House will try to pass a stopgap budget as the Senate did last week. The governor has wisely vowed to veto it.

With the budget impasse about to enter a fourth month, short-term funding for schools and the handpicked programs favored by Republican legislators may sound like the compassionate choice. In reality, it's the opposite. Temporary funding is a huge setback for students and taxpayers. All we have to do is look at Washington, D.C. Partisan gridlock in Congress has prevented our nation from having a complete federal budget for years. Instead, Americans have dealt with fiscal cliffs and sequesters that have our country treading water with short-term funding.

The Legislature is dysfunctional enough. Do we really want them using the budget tactics of Congress? Stopgaps are bad in Washington and wrong for Pennsylvania. It makes the budget stalemate last longer by taking the pressure off lawmakers to negotiate in good faith. Like D.C., one stopgap will lead to another, and our politicians will never fix critical problems.

That's why we cannot let the political rhetoric distract from what this fight is all about: restoring school funding and property tax relief. According to a recent poll by Franklin & Marshall College, those are the top two issues for Pennsylvania voters.

Both are the main priorities for Gov. Tom Wolf in this budget fight. He's proposing a severance tax on natural gas drillers to fix school funding cuts by former Gov. Tom Corbett. Wolf is also pushing for property tax relief by shifting to sales and income taxes.

Shockingly, the Legislature has different priorities. Powerful lawmakers are refusing to consider a severance tax. They are content to hold up full restoration of school funding and ignore property tax relief to demand unconstitutional pension cuts that won't put a single dollar into schools or the state this year.

One thing is clear: After four years of underfunded schools and budget deficits that caused five credit downgrades in three years, students and working families cannot sacrifice again to protect oil and gas companies.

All of us are suffering the consequences. Since devastating cuts in 2011, 20,000 teachers and staff were eliminated, 70 percent of schools increased class sizes, and homeowners in 91 percent of school districts are paying more in property taxes.

To make thing worse, Pennsylvania dropped to 45th in state support of education. Today, only 36 percent of school funding comes from the state — down from 51 percent in 1980.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania is the only major gas-producing state without a severance tax.

Gov. Wolf's plan would invest that new revenue directly in the classroom. In York County, schools would get a $14.9 million boost in state funding, which equals about $233 more per student. That's in stark contrast to the $4.60 per student increase statewide in the Republican budget passed in June.

Some lawmakers claim it increased school funding by over $100 million. Inexplicably, huge cuts for mandated school costs nearly wiped out the increase. In the end, there was barely enough new funding to pay for a few pencils and notebooks, much less replace outdated science books, buy safer buses or restore full-day kindergarten. That's entirely insufficient and the governor rightly vetoed it.

How have Republican leaders responded to their mistake? By wasting tax dollars trying and failing to override the governor's veto — and now this stopgap scheme.

Reasonable people can disagree, but hard-working people have sacrificed enough because of the Legislature's political games. Congressional-style gridlock and budget gimmicks make things worse. You wouldn't run your family budget with this stopgap nonsense and nether should lawmakers.

Now that the Senate has passed the stopgap budget proposal, it is time for members of the House to listen to the people. They must be willing to compromise and work with the governor to pass a fiscally sound and sustainable budget that restores school funding with a drilling tax and delivers historic property tax relief.

— Carla Christopher is the president of Equality Fest York and senior executive vice president of the York County Young Democrats. She is also a York City resident, educator, small business owner and former therapeutic foster parent.