OP-ED: Budgets should reflect priorities, including those of everyday people

Judith Higgins
Lower Windsor Township
Dr. Judith Higgins speaks to community activists during the Women's March in York City, Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

State Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill recently stated she was very excited about the huge deposit made to the Rainy Day Fund. The $300 million that has been placed in the fund for the 2019-20 budget, which other states use to “survive” if there are economic downturns, is designated for “unexpected expenses” in Pennsylvania.

She states that funding the Rainy Day Fund “provides taxpayers with a safety net in the event of an economic downturn.”

“Unexpected expenses”? “Taxpayer safety net”? Those are very vague phrases, and she provides no definitions.

Phillips-Hill mentions that voters sit down at their kitchen tables and review their budgets and adjust accordingly “when money gets tight” and that the state should, also. But, what are the commonwealth’s priorities? What makes the items on the list important?

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Do the poor and disabled need a safety net? Are the disabled and poor “deserving” of a lifeline? What was gained from the elimination of the Pennsylvania General Assistance Program stipend? How did the 60,000 mostly disabled and very poor Pennsylvanians, including folks in York County, adjust when the Republicans in the legislature eliminated this monthly stipend of $200 in 2019?

This stipend frequently provided money for food, and I heard first hand about the impact this cut had. A good friend of mine provides services to autistic adults who are in various living situations. Many of these individuals, if they are able, work and receive subminimum wages for their work. These “jobs” are seen as opportunities to socialize, to “learn” a skill, to feel a sense of value — and to be paid $2 or $3 an hour is common.

Food is not an unexpected expense, and it follows that, since there are not many disabled poor people elected to the legislature of our commonwealth, there is little concern in the legislature to be sure their safety net remains.

How about the need for clean water and treated sewage? The governor of Maryland is suing the commonwealth for the deplorable state of sewage treatment that is polluting our own Susquehanna River, which feeds into the Chesapeake Bay.

While we are not Flint, Michigan, or Newark, New Jersey, with highly leaded, unsafe water, there should be concern. Raw sewage flowing into the Susquehanna affects quality of human life, tourism, the ability to attract sportsmen and support wildlife. And if it is bad enough  to get sued by Maryland, I would think the legislature would consider this an “unexpected expense.” 

Gov. Tom Wolf was not happy, as responding to a lawsuit will divert money away from addressing the issue, but does the legislature share the same concerns? Would a failing infrastructure in Harrisburg be an “unexpected expense,” leading to emergency funding to ensure that everyone living downstream remains healthy, a proverbial safety net for humanity, wildlife and the economy for our county?

Elections are coming. Saving money is great if all the crisis situations are handled, but it appears they are not “concerns” for the current legislature.

What is important to you? Your family? A healthy environment? The dignity of a job that pays a living wage?  When you sit down at your kitchen table, considering your budget, wouldn’t it be nice to know that Pennsylvania can compete with surrounding states that are paying more than $7.25 an hour?

Maybe it is time to elect representatives who believe that the environment, living wages, and caring for people is important now, and not just on some future rainy day.