With Christmas only a few days away, Hanukkah already underway and Kwanzaa just about to begin as well, we have a unique opportunity each year to enjoy time with family and friends in celebration of the holiday season.
This time of year is showcased by the spirit of giving and hope, where we put others first and acknowledge the many blessings we all enjoy.
The end of the year also offers us a time of reflection.
As I consider 2015 – my first year serving as your State Senator – I am troubled by how divisive and unproductive our state government has become.
For example, while families are preparing for the holidays, lawmakers and Governor Wolf are still in Harrisburg working to finalize the 2015-16 state budget, which was due on June 30.
Certainly, the disagreements are real and the results are consequential.
Governor Wolf continues to demand higher taxes to accommodate significant increases in spending and refuses to sign into law public sector pension reform unless those demands are met.
Last week, in an effort to end the budget impasse, the Senate passed a $30.8 billion budget that seeks to accommodate the Governor.
Every single executive department in state government was given additional money, and an incredible $400 million more for public schools was appropriated.
To accommodate the additional spending, the Senate’s compromise budget would necessitate a minimum $1.2 billion tax increase.
While I want to finalize the budget, end the impasse and get money flowing to our human service providers and schools, I could not in good conscious vote for this plan.
How can taxpayers afford the growth of state government when the two largest cost-drivers in our budget – education and human services – are increasing by nearly 8% in one year?
This doesn’t even account for the 50.5% increase for the Department of Community and Economic Development, 5.6% increase for the Department of Corrections, 17.2% increase for the Department of General Services, 10% increase for the Department of Health, 24% increase for the Department of Labor and Industry, and 7.4% increase for the Department of State, to name a few.
We must do more than just talk about controlling the cost, size and scope of our government.
Another key component of the new budget deal is the additional new money for schools.
However, when I reviewed how these new funds would be distributed, the money disproportionately flowed to some schools over others, heavily favoring the Philadelphia School District, which gets a whopping 10.1% increase over last year ($100 million more).
While making massive hikes in government spending at all levels – to include school districts – we ought to be doing all that we can to ensure these dollars benefit students and drive student academic achievement. This school code bill falls woefully short of the reform and accountability needed. In fact, this bill makes punitive funding cuts to families exercising educational choice to attend a cyber-charter school of their choice, and did so prior to receiving feedback from a funding commission designed to evaluate appropriate levels of funding.
I voted against this measure as well.
The Senate also passed another public sector pension reform bill, which would significantly reduce the defined benefit program that has crippled state and school district budgets.
While I voted in support of this legislation, I am greatly troubled by the inclusion of the recalculation of the state’s current pension liability. In plain-speak, state government is seeking to remortgage the pension debt again, pushing current pension obligations to future generations which will have to be repaid at a higher, long-term cost.
One glaring omission from the many bills that have been passed by the Senate to implement the budget is the taxes needed to pay for the spending increases. Being considered are a myriad of new taxes, including an expansion of the sales tax base, possible increase in the sales tax rate, cigarette and other tobacco taxes, to name a few.
I do not know how or when the budget impasse will end, however I do know that it has been an incredible honor to serve as your State Senator this past year.
I am thankful for all those that took time out to contact me by email, phone, sending a letter or by visiting. I have said it before and it deserves to be repeated, you are my best resource for carrying your voice to our State Capitol.
While this past year has highlighted many differences, I remain convinced that if we focus on those things we do agree about – building an opportunity society for all Pennsylvanians by promoting individual freedom, strong families, vibrant communities, high quality schools and the free enterprise system – we can achieve great things, together.
I certainly wish you and your family an exceptional season of giving, hope and reflection.