Pennsylvania’s Capitol Building was built in 1906 and is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful state capitols in America.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of visitors come to visit this “palace of art” and be inspired by the Capitol’s detailed and inspirational grandeur, including the magnificent Rotunda which was patterned after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome as well as the Paris Opera House.
Alongside the exquisite architecture and artwork are reminders of what is most important about our Capitol Building – that it exists as a place where state elected leaders meet to make laws to improve the lives of those that they serve.
A quote from William Penn, our Commonwealth’s founder, is inscribed around the Capitol’s Rotunda, just below the main cornice, which best captures Penn’s hopes when he founded our colony.
It reads: There may be room there for such a holy experiment, for the nations want a precedent. And my God will make it the seed of a nation. That an example may be set up to the nations. That we may do the thing that is truly wise and just.
The greatness of William Penn was that he saw something greater – bigger – than himself, and he offered his new land, Pennsylvania, to promote that vision.
On January 3rd we officially kicked off the 201st legislative session of the General Assembly, extending Penn’s “holy experiment” for another two years.
Let there be no mistake about it, the next two years will be challenging.
The anemic growth of Pennsylvania’s overall economy continues to keep too many people under and unemployed. The $60 billion public sector pension crisis has crippled both state and school district budgets. Governor Wolf’s expansion of Medicaid to an additional 500,000 people under the federal Affordable Care Act has resulted in escalating human services costs at a time when we can least afford it.
And to make matters worse, the state is going to experience at least a $600 million financial shortfall this fiscal year.
To me, all of these deeply troubling issues demand that state government leaders think big and not be afraid to challenge government programs, systems and organizations which have historically resisted change.
Simply put, we can no longer just tinker, we need to overhaul.
Consider just a few of these facts.
The latest U.S. Census annual population estimate shows Pennsylvania losing nearly 8,000 residents in 2016, which continues a trend over the last several years. Couple this with the fastest growing demographic for our state – those 80 years and older – and the result is clear: fewer working-age adults and more growth and expenditure in state services. Less revenue, more cost.
Adding to this negative dynamic is the state’s actual job growth.
In 2016, Pennsylvania’s job market growth was largely realized in lower paying service positions such as hospitality, social services and similar jobs. In fact, job growth across all employment sectors was down as compared to other years. This is why Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate was 5.7% in November, or about 1 percentage point above the national average.
To make matters worse, the Commonwealth joined the vast majority of other states in experiencing less than expected sales tax collections, which are tracking nearly 2% below expectations and could drop even farther.
All of these facts underscore what most people already know – that state government must find ways to meet its obligations without further harming the fragile economy through higher taxes. Fortunately, Governor Wolf now realizes this as well, and I was pleased to see that he finally recognizes that taxes are not the medicine that Pennsylvania’s ailing economy needs.
Instead, let’s have conversations and find creative ways to reduce cost through innovation. Let us resolve to openly challenge the structure and operations of government and engage in the hard choices of high quality management.
I believe we need to reinvent our state government for the 21st century.
Certainly, this will not be easy. The difficult job of governing generally resists wholesale change and big ideas. Instead, policies which create the least amount of change are adopted in the hope that the public will accept the de minimis result and credit leaders for trying to fix a problem.
To me, that’s not good enough.
Over the next several months I intend to outline my ideas and priorities for the 2017-18 legislative session. However, as I have said many times before, and it is absolutely true – the most important job I have is to listen and respond to your concerns and priorities, so your feedback is both welcome and important.
Together, let’s accept William Penn’s invitation to do the thing that is truly wise and just and find the best path forward to the betterment of Lancaster County and our people.