HARRISBURG – Lancaster County Senators Ryan P. Aument (R-36) and Scott Martin (R-13) voiced concerns about the level of new spending and borrowing in the $36.1 billion budget plan outlined by Governor Wolf today.
The governor’s 2020-21 budget proposal would increase state spending by approximately $1.5 billion (4.2 percent) over the current year’s total. The plan also includes more than a billion dollars in new borrowing for various projects.
“Many of the ideas that Governor Wolf presented today are laudable, but we need to take a closer look at how we can achieve these goals in a way that is more fiscally responsible,” Aument said. “The large spending increase that the governor proposed today far outpaces inflation, and coupled with significant increases in supplemental spending, results in a risky financial profile for the future of the Commonwealth.
“I am relieved that the governor is not calling for any broad-based tax increases, given our objections to that. However, future tax hikes are inevitable if we do not control the growth of state spending and borrowing,” Martin said. “Medicaid and other social service programs are one of the biggest cost-drivers in the budget and the Governor has overspent in this area by close to a billion dollars in each of the last two years. If we want to preserve these programs for future generations, we need to take a closer look at how we can root out waste, fraud and abuse of these programs through measures like my bill to implement work requirements for able-bodied Medicaid recipients.”
The budget proposal would increase Basic Education Funding by $100 million, a 1.6-percent increase. Additional funding is also included for early childhood education ($30 million) and special education ($25 million). Line items for career and technical education ($99 million) and the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology ($18.7 million) were both flat-funded.
Wolf’s budget seeks to address the student debt crisis by increasing funding for the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency by $42.8 million, including a $29 million increase for grants to students.
Aument, who serves on the Higher Education Funding Commission, recently announced plans to introduce his own reforms to ease the strain of the student debt crisis on current students and recent graduates. However, Aument’s bills would address the issue without millions in new spending or new debt backed by the general credit and taxing power of the Commonwealth.
“There is no doubt that the student debt crisis is one of the most challenging financial problems of our generation,” Aument said. “The fact that Governor Wolf is acknowledging the magnitude of this problem is a step in the right direction, but we must be mindful of the cost. While helping students pay for the cost of their education through grant programs is one part of the solution, tackling this issue will require a multi-faceted approach that addresses the student-loan debt crisis from all angles. These include controlling costs, making college more affordable, decreasing the financial risk of earning a degree, and helping students and their parents make informed decisions about the appropriate amount of debt to incur to accomplish their higher education goals. I look forward to the governor’s cooperation in addressing this issue in a way that is fair to current and future students, recent graduates, and taxpayers alike.”
The budget plan also included $13 million in new funding for Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) – a 2.7 percent increase.
“One of the biggest challenges facing policymakers and State System administrators is how we right-size the system for future generations. We have seen enrollment decline throughout the system without a reduction in costs, which places greater financial burdens on schools and students alike,” said Martin, who is a Millersville University alum and serves on the PASSHE Board of Directors. “As we move forward, we cannot afford to throw more and more money at the problem without fixing the underlying weaknesses in the system. We need to take decisive action to help the State System meet its goal of providing a quality education at an affordable cost.”
Despite the proposed spending hikes in Governor Wolf’s budget proposal, the plan would also cut a number of critical programs for Lancaster County communities. In particular, both Senators voiced concerns about the impact of a proposed cut to the School Safety and Security Grant Program, which was created by a bill Martin co-authored in 2018. The governor’s budget plan would slash funding for the program from $60 million this year to $15 million next year.
“Regardless of what partisan differences we may have, we should all be able to agree that protecting our children is a very high priority. This grant program is one of the best tools to help local schools take the necessary steps to prevent future tragedies,” Martin said. “It is bad policy to gut a program that safeguards our children, while at the same time increasing funding for Executive Offices by more than $20 million and boosting the Governor’s Office budget by more than 9 percent.”
“The creation of this grant program was the result of bipartisan cooperation from numerous stakeholders, and the results so far have been outstanding in terms of the steps taken to protect our schools and identify students who are at risk,” Aument said. “To cut this program would be to erase that progress at the expense of the safety of our students.”
Both Senators also expressed concerns about proposed cuts to agricultural programs. A total of $4.3 million was cut from the Department of Agriculture’s budget. Nearly half of that cut came from the elimination of $2.2 million in Agriculture Research. Other cuts included the reduction or elimination of funding for the Animal Health and Diagnostic Commission, food marketing, agriculture research, and livestock and consumer health protection.
Aument introduced legislation that was part of Senate Republicans’ Farming First initiative to encourage new generations of farmers to continue the state’s rich agricultural heritage.
“The cuts to critical agriculture programs are a disappointment, especially in light of the fact that all parties have worked together over the past year to support Pennsylvania’s farmers through several new programs and initiatives to strengthen the future of the state’s top industry,” Aument said. “We will need to look closely at the impact of these cuts in order to ensure we do not do anything that walks back the progress we have made in recent months to protect the future of Pennsylvania farming.”
Wolf’s budget includes a new tax for State Police coverage that is projected to raise $136 million. Martin expressed concerns that the tax would disproportionately affect rural communities that do not have their own police force.
“Under the current system, every community pays for State Police coverage through state income and sales taxes, driver licensing fees, gas taxes, fines and other levies paid by citizens in urban and rural areas alike. Everybody pays their fair share and nobody is getting a free ride,” Martin said. “The governor says that this proposal is different from his previous plans, but we need to take a closer look at the impact on communities of all shapes and sizes to make sure this proposal is not just another attempt to force a heavier share of the cost burden for State Police coverage on rural Pennsylvania.”