Published by the Delaware County Daily Times
February 16, 2016
Pennsylvania government is broken. The latest Franklin and Marshall poll (January 2016) indicates that citizens have given Pennsylvania’s government its lowest confidence ratings in more than 20 years. Not surprisingly, this latest poll indicates that two-thirds of Pennsylvania citizens (67 percent) believe things in the State are on the wrong track. Almost four in five voters (82 percent) believe that Pennsylvania government needs to be reformed.
This dissatisfaction is not surprising. The state budget for 2015-2016 is eight months overdue. The problem of the state pension fund, created by the Legislature via massively increasing the benefit levels beginning in 2001, has not been adequately remedied in 15 years. Pennsylvania government continues to be apathetic about its disgracefully inadequate funding of public education. And the state is facing a massive structural deficit.
For too many legislators, vilifying Gov. Tom Wolf may be effective partisan politics these days but the state’s budget dilemas as highlighted by the governor are a reality. Pennsylvania faces a severe structural deficit (estimated at $1.9 billion for the next fiscal year) that threatens to bring additional credit downgrades and further cuts to crucial state programs that educate our children, aid the most vulnerable Pennsylvanians, and protect the environment.
Meanwhile, the impact of not yet having a state budget for 2015-2016 has been devastating for school districts. According to state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, school districts statewide have already taken out nearly $1 billion in loans to cover shortfalls caused by the current state budget impasse, costing them a collective $40-50 million in interest so far. In essence, school districts have been forced to borrow money because of state incompetence. And with the stalemate in its eighth month, many school districts will likely be pursuing even more new loans to cover the final half of the school year.
In a state desperate for new sources of revenue to adequately fund commonwealth needs, Pennsylvania continues to be the only state unwilling to impose a severance tax on Shale gas extraction. The Marcellus Shale Coalition, the industry’s trade group, is the state’s most active lobbying concern. It reports spending just under $14.1 million since 2010 to buy legislative votes against a severance tax. Yet Pennsylvania’s Independent Fiscal Office has projected that the severance tax would bring in vast amounts of new revenue while the gas industry in Pennsylvania would continue its expansion. This is a direct contradiction of the “doom and gloom” projected by the Marcellus Shale lobbyists. As for gas drillers leaving the state if a tax were enacted, this is highly unlikely because every other state where this industry exists already has severance taxes.
Finally, too many Republican politicians in Harrisburg continue to tell constituents that public schools have plenty of money and that the real problems with public education have nothing to do with state funding. However, this flies in the face of the reality of Pennsylvania currently paying one of the lowest percentage shares of state funding (about 35 percent) for schools when
compared to other states nationally. Added to this, Pennsylvania now has the dubious distinction of having the largest spending gaps between rich and poor school districts.
Pennsylvania legislators need to do a bit of homework and read the latest Gallup oll on education. Recently released, this 47th annual PDK poll reveals that the no. 1 problem the American people said their local schools are facing is not bad teachers or unions but insufficient funding. And this finding, ignored by Pennsylvania government despite the state constitutional mandate to “thoroughly and efficiently fund public education,” has been ignored by the legislature for too many years.
Pennsylvanian’s elected officials are not governing. And the state is in big trouble.
Joseph Batory is a past superintendent of schools in Upper Darby School District. He has written extensively on the “politics of education.”