Republicans juggle deficit, pandemic and schools in the budget
Pennsylvania Republican lawmakers are working to craft a budget plan that would use billions of dollars in federal pandemic aid and excess state taxes to help support existing programs, increase aid to schools public funds and inject funds into sectors hit hard by the pandemic.
The extra money has sparked a blitz of demands on how to use it, as Democrats demand more taxes and schools to accelerate the state’s population growth.
All is not money found, especially as Pennsylvania faces a shrinking working-age population in the coming years that will pay a growing bill for expensive human services.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Pat Browne R-Lehigh said state finances were under extreme pressure to meet growing demands for health and social care, especially long-term care duration for the elderly.
“This is the problem we have,” Browne said.
Even maintaining current programs using the full $ 7.3 billion US bailout bill signed by President Joe Biden in March and $ 3 billion in excess tax revenue over the next three years will leave Pennsylvania with a deficit, Browne said.
Republicans are also concerned that tax collections are headed for a slowdown after broad federal relief sloughed its way into the economy and consumer spending cooled.
The new fiscal year begins July 1, and lawmakers say they expect to wrap up work on the budget plan next week.
While Republicans are behind closed doors to determine which hard-hit sectors can help with federal aid, Democratic lawmakers have broad plans in place to use it. These plans include things like upgrades to school technology and aging school buildings, or grants for housing programs and frontline workers.
Highway builders, hospitals, nursing homes, affordable housing advocates, youth violence prevention advocates and others are also seeking a share.
Pro Tempore Senate President Jake Corman, R-Center, said he would like to help nursing homes and affordable housing efforts, as examples of areas that are struggling in the wake of the pandemic.
Decisions on how to use the money are being influenced by work in Washington to put together a massive infrastructure financing plan that could bring in billions of additional federal dollars for Pennsylvania.
Then there’s Gov. Tom Wolf’s top priority that Republicans say they are trying to meet. In February, the Democrat asked the Republican-controlled legislature for a $ 1.35 billion increase in public school operations and instruction aid, a 20% increase, on top of the 6 , $ 8 billion they are currently receiving.
The majority of that $ 8.1 billion would be spent through a 6-year-old school funding formula designed to iron out inequities in the way Pennsylvania finances poorer public schools. Only a fraction crosses it now.
“The governor has a plan and I’m not criticizing him, I just don’t think we can do it all at once,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York.
One motivator is an ongoing lawsuit accusing the state of unconstitutionally neglecting its poorest public schools.
Republican lawmakers see Wolf’s proposal as a way to avoid a court ruling that could remove the ruling from the Legislature by ordering them to increase aid to public schools.
For their part, Pennsylvania public schools received about $ 6.2 billion in the past year from three federal pandemic assistance bills, according to figures from the House Appropriations Committee.
But school boards have continued to pressure Republican lawmakers to correct what they say is an increasingly debilitating problem of being forced to overpay charter school and cyber tuition fees. -chartered schools for the children who go there.
Republicans have their own educational demands, preparing legislation that would increase state taxpayer support for private and religious schools by hundreds of millions of dollars. They are also proposing a plan to reduce the state’s net corporate tax rate.
Democrats hoped to use the billions of dollars to tackle the state’s long-term demographic challenges, said Rep. Matt Bradford, the House Appropriations Committee ranking Democrat.
This means making the state more business-friendly and tackling inequalities in school funding to attract employers and young families. Republicans have not been receptive, Bradford said.
“We want to seize this opportunity to make long-term investments that will meet the long-term challenges down the road,” said Bradford, R-Montgomery. “We believe it is short-sighted not to seize this opportunity.”