Op-ed: Correcting some of Wolf’s budget rhetoric

The following opinion-editorial appeared in today’s edition of the Observer-Reporter.

By Senator Camera Bartolotta

Politics should never stand in the way of doing the right thing for the people we represent. Although I have disagreed with many of Gov. Tom Wolf’s decisions in recent months, I am encouraged by his most recent action. By signing a partial budget bill, he will relieve the pressures our schools and social service agencies face because of his previous decisions to withhold all funding.

Since June 30, the Legislature presented multiple funding proposals to Wolf. The first time he approved the release of taxpayer money was Dec. 22.

At the same time, the governor used his power to line-item veto the $30.3 billion budget we sent him before Christmas. The governor’s vetoes allow for $23.3 billion of proposed funding (plus federal dollars) to flow to schools and nonprofits.

While the Dec. 22 announcement was a welcome piece of good news, I must correct some of the rhetoric used at his news conference that day.

The budget placed on the governor’s desk provided a record $10.7 billion to K-12 education. It increased basic education by $150 million, special education by $30 million, and Pre-K by $30 million.

I understand the governor wanted even more funding, along with broad-based tax increases. Yet, that is no excuse for making disingenuous claims the proposal “cut education funding by $95 million.”

This misleading remark stems from the fact reimbursements for school construction projects will be funded as a capital project outside the budget. This change was also part of the agreed-to budget framework the governor fully supported and it actually means more funding for school building projects.

I sincerely hope the governor will not continue to punish school districts by preventing construction reimbursements in order to artificially create the soundbite of “cuts” to education. Such an action seems unthinkable. Wolf already reduced basic education funding by $3 billion with his line-item veto in order to create political leverage at the negotiation table. I think that is enough.

As a freshman senator and someone new to Harrisburg, I have been extremely frustrated with how this entire budget process has unfolded. We are well past time for Harrisburg to move beyond partisanship and political rhetoric.

I share the governor’s desire to address the state’s structural deficit and strengthen our bond ratings. However, I fundamentally disagree we can only solve these problems with massive increases in state spending and hiking income and sales taxes on hard-working Pennsylvanians. In fact, I believe we must identify the root causes of these problems and correct them before asking for more money from the pockets of our citizens.

To start, bond rating agencies have continually listed our pension crisis as a major reason for Pennsylvania’s poor rankings. This is one of the reasons why I have continually fought for meaningful public employee pension reforms.

Not only have our pension liabilities negatively affected our bond ratings, but they are also the number one cause of rising property taxes. Over the last five years, of school districts seeking to raise property taxes more than inflation, a stunning 98 percent received exemptions to cover pension costs. Reforming our public employee pension systems will prevent taxpayers from shouldering enormous new financial burdens.

Much work remains to finalize the state budget, as a number of worthwhile state programs and services remain unfunded. I truly believe we can properly invest in education and fund the core functions of state government without burdening Pennsylvania residents with more taxes.

Despite all of the frustration and uncertainty this impasse created, I remain sincerely committed to doing my part to end this impasse. I will continue to work with my colleagues in the Senate and the House to find the common ground necessary to pass a budget framework that moves our state forward and protects taxpayers.