Harrisburg Happenings: March 1, 2017
Concerns abound over Wolf budget proposal
On Tuesday, Feb. 7, Gov. Tom Wolf gave his budget address before a joint session of the General Assembly to provide a broad overview of his proposed $32.3 billion state budget for Fiscal Year 2017-18, which begins on July 1.
Overall, the governor's proposal represents a $571.5 million (1.8 percent) increase in spending, including $200 million more for pre-K through grade 12 education statewide. While the governor promoted his education initiatives during his relatively brief budget address, I was disappointed that he made no special note of support for the Erie School District.
The governor and state Department of Education leaders are certainly aware of the dire financial issues here, and I had hoped that a strong commitment to Erie School District students would be part of the budget address.
Spreadsheets from the Department of Education show the Erie School District is in line for a $1.57 million increase in Basic Education Funding (to $64.4 million) and a $287,568 increase in Special Education Funding (to nearly $10.5 million). The district would also receive a $2.6 million Ready to Learn Block Grant in FY 2017-18.
The proposed increases in BEF and SEF are certainly welcome, but I know the state can and should do more to help Erie stabilize its financial base and move forward in the future to provide the quality education that all of our children deserve. I am committed to working with Senate leaders to find additional supplemental funding for the Erie School District as part of budget negotiations.
The budget now on the table represents a significant change by Gov. Wolf from his previous two state spending plans, in which he requested substantial increases in the state's income tax and sales tax. This year's proposal instead calls for about $1 billion in narrow tax increases, such as one on Marcellus Shale extraction, and $2 billion in cuts and savings initiatives.
I join with a majority of my colleagues who support efforts to make government more efficient by relying on prudent spending rather than imposing broad-based tax increases to balance the state budget.
That said, I plan to look very closely at a couple of aspects of the governor's proposed costs and savings initiatives. One initiative that could have a serious impact here in Erie is the proposed consolidation of the departments of Aging, Health, Human Services, and Drug & Alcohol Programs. There is no doubt that such a move – if handled properly and thoroughly – could provide true cost savings through the elimination of duplicative services.
But, the problems created by the abrupt and unnecessary closure of the state Unemployment Compensation Service Centers and the impact that move has had on thousands of Pennsylvanians makes me a little uneasy about the proposed merger.
I need to know how this merger into one massive Department of Health and Human Services would impact organizations such as the Greater Erie Community Action Community, especially its Area Agency on Aging services. Of the $8.4 million in state funding received by GECAC, $6.8 million was channeled from the Department of Aging ($4.4 million) and the Department of Human Services ($2.4 million). Certainly, we need more information about how this vital funding for important senior citizen and family support programs would be impacted by the merger of those state agencies.
The merger could also mean the closure of state offices that conveniently provide important services in our community. The Department of Health currently operates six regional Vital Records Offices including the Erie Office at 1910 W. 26th Street to process requests for birth and death certificates. There is no way at this point to know if our local office would remain open or be rolled into another office somewhere else as the state consolidates operations under the proposed new mega-department.
These are just a few of the concerns I have with the governor's budget proposal. I will study these issues in depth over the coming weeks and months as the Legislature works to develop a spending plan that is in the best interests of the people of Pennsylvania.
I encourage local residents to visit my website, senatorlaughlin.com, and my Facebook page, facebook.com/senatorlaughlin/, to keep up-to-date with state government news – including the state budget – and learn more about state services and agencies.
Sen. Daniel J. Laughlin can be contacted by visiting senatorlaughlin.com/contact, and you can follow him on Twitter @SenatorLaughlin.