The Pennsylvania State House and Senate spent the week of June 21 working on budget negotiations and other bills before the June 30 deadline for the state’s budget. Related bills were passed by the legislature late in the evening on Friday the 25th before the various bills were sent to the Governor for signature. Depending on where you stand on budget issues, there were hits and misses, though the budget bills ended with some bipartisan support.
Going into the budget, the Commonwealth had a $2.9 billion surplus and $7.3 billion in federal pandemic funds. The budget is without increases in personal and business taxes.
There are arguments that more of the federal monies should have been put toward education funding so as to help alleviate property taxes. I am glad that there are significant increases in education spending that will help our school districts in some way. There is a $300 million increase for basic education funding, with $200 million being added to the fair funding formula amount. The “fair funding formula” is not enough, though, for many of our districts, so $100 million is being placed into a new “Level Up” fund to help the 100 most underfunded districts in the Commonwealth. It is hoped that this program can grow in future years to include more funds and more districts.
Additional monies will be going to increase funding for special education, early education and early intervention education. COVID-19 federal funding will be used for Intermediate Units, Career and Technical Centers, educational programs for neglected, delinquent and at-risk youths and approved private schools, charter schools for the deaf and blind, and private residential rehabilitative institutions. There will also be funds for schools that have been identified for additional targeted support and improvement. Funding will be provided for school districts and charter schools to address learning loss from the COVID-19 pandemic and to provide after-school and summer enrichment programs. There will also be funding for libraries, Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education universities, and emergency assistance to non-public schools.
The school districts in our area will all see funding increases once the numbers are finalized.
While this is of obvious benefit, it is still, in my opinion, not sufficient to help the children and also our property taxpayers.
The budget also provides help for emergency rental and utility assistance and for the Homeowner Assistance Grant Program for things such as mortgage assistance, HOA fees, insurance and utilities. There is also funding for community violence prevention.
Long term care funding will be available for providing nursing homes with funds to provide PPE and ongoing testing and infection control measures. Assisted living residences and personal care homes will have funding available for continued safeguards for residents and staff and there will be some funding available to help long-term care facilities with indoor air management strategies to help mitigate the spread of disease.
While the budget does provide funding for infrastructure for roads and bridges, there is no funding to address the lack of internet access felt by so many in our Commonwealth. This had been a bipartisan supported issue for the past couple of years, but again the issue of funding our broadband infrastructure is not being addressed. There is also no funding to address lead and asbestos in some of our schools. In many of our districts, the school buildings are older, and we need to address the inherent problems with lead and asbestos.
There is no funding budgeted for hazard pay or sick leave, which should have been addressed for our frontline workers who were on the job non-stop during the pandemic.
There is also no assistance for small businesses that suffered the most during the pandemic. The monies that are presently available could provide needed relief for the small businesses that struggled so greatly this past year. There is also no mention of addressing our direct care worker shortage or our public health infrastructure.
The remaining federal funds, around $5 billion, are being placed in the Commonwealth’s general fund and “Rainy Day” fund. I agree that it is always important to save for the future but the need that exists, right now, for so many, should not be ignored. As I mentioned, there was bipartisan support for many aspects of the budget, but I still feel that we did not adequately address the many problems that exist for the businesses, schools and citizens of our Commonwealth. There is now the ability to put more funds into the economy while still saving for our future needs.
I voted against the budget, because of my belief that additional available funds were necessary for education, businesses and communities. I am hopeful the legislature will be working over the next several months to address some of the issues that remain with the budget, and work to amend the budget. There should be, and hopefully will be, many opportunities to address these and other concerns in the coming months.