Crafting A Responsible Budget For Pennsylvania
Gov. Tom Wolf wrote the headline for his budget address a few weeks ago when he decided not to pursue broad-based tax increases. The hard-working taxpayers of Pennsylvania have themselves to thank for the choice he made.
Members of the General Assembly heard loud and clear from constituents when the governor showed his appetite for taxes during his two prior budget speeches. Tuesday’s address was a welcome change from previous years. With an estimated $3 billion structural deficit, the governor is taking a different tack, one clamored for by House Republicans, and finally acknowledging the fiscal realities we face.
While his proposal provides a better starting point than the first two years of his administration, one constant - increased overall spending - remains. His $32.34 billion proposal includes tax hikes and exceeds the rate of inflation. The governor is again asking more of the Pennsylvania taxpayer before addressing some shortcomings in Harrisburg.
Lifting the sales tax exemption on several business services has been proposed. This includes custom programming, design and data processing, aircraft and related services, and insurance premiums not already taxed. A natural gas severance tax (at a rate of 6.5 percent), which will be a tough sell in the General Assembly, is on his wish list. There is a belief that drillers are not taxed. In fact, they pay taxes as any other business does, and are also hit with a 5 percent impact fee, which functions like a tax.
The governor is making a serious effort to control spending by closing the State Correctional Institution in Pittsburgh, reducing corporate welfare, and merging state departments to eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy and provide increased efficiency. Still, this budget proposal increases spending and requires an additional $1 billion in taxes that equate to $315 per every family of four.
The House Appropriations Committee, chaired by Rep. Stan Saylor of Red Lion, will soon hold hearings that hopefully will unveil even more ways we can streamline state government and save taxpayer dollars. In addition, the Taxpayers’ Caucus, chaired by my York County colleagues, Sen. Scott Wagner and Rep. Seth Grove, will continue its efforts to identify cost savings that are alternatives to tax hikes.
Policy, through the enactment of legislation, must drive fiscal reform. Wolf’s proposal sends more money to our public schools for basic education funding, PreK Counts, special education and HeadStart assistance. An additional way to get more dollars into the classroom would be to address mandate relief. I have introduced House Bill 208, legislation which would prohibit unfunded mandates on school districts. Requiring any mandate passed by legislation or executive action to be fully funded prior to implementation provides, among other things, property tax relief.
Another way to reduce school spending and lower property owners’ tax bills is to rescind the requirement that school districts pay prevailing wage on construction projects. Pennsylvania’s Prevailing Wage Law has seen one change since its inception in 1961, and that only exempted highway and bridge projects. Ask the Southwestern School District about its roof replacement six years ago that went from an $84,000 job to a more than $125,000 project thanks to prevailing wage, and you’ll see why this change is necessary.
Many Pennsylvania taxpayers object to the amount of money being sent to the School District of Philadelphia in particular. Adding to that ire are “ghost teachers” - individuals who receive salary and pension benefits from their public school employer while on leave to perform union duties. I’ve co-authored House Bill 164 to end this currently permissible practice.
Granted, the governor cannot reasonably outline every aspect of the budget in his speech. But for the good of our economy, he should have addressed much-needed pension reform and gone into specifics about how he plans to close the deficit. These things impact all Pennsylvanians, regardless of where they live and what they do for a living. For the good of York County, I would have liked to hear him acknowledge the need for property tax relief, something that doesn’t affect all our citizens but does hit households hard in many regions of the state.
It’s clear state government needs to find ways to measure and manage our expenses in order to reduce the cost of government even further. Pennsylvania taxpayers deserve that before we ask for any more of their hard-earned dollars.
Representative Kristin Phillips-Hill
93rd Legislative District
Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Media Contact: Scott Little
RepKristin.com / Facebook.com/RepKristin