The Bizarre Workings of Harrisburg

By Joseph Batory

  1. The Pennsylvania Derby, an annual event at the Parx Casino and Racing complex in Bucks County, awards a $1 million purse. So what could that possible have to do with Pennsylvania Government?

          Well, that winning prize is subsidized with State tax dollars.

Eric Heyl of the Tribute-Review revealed that last year $246 million in taxes on casino slot machines across the State went to the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development Fund. The money supposedly provides health and pension benefits for horsemen, and assists horse breeding operations. However, last year 80% of this money ($196.8 million) went to boost purse winnings.

This “giveaway” program exists while Pennsylvania underfunds its share of public education statewide at one of the lowest percentages in the nation.

Or consider this. What Pennsylvania spent on the horse-racing industry last year is $37 million more than the $209 million budget allocation proposed this year for the State Department of Health. In essence, the State typically is prioritizing the horse racing industry more than it does the physical well-being of its 12 million residents.

 

  1. Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale recently warned that if Harrisburg government gets engaged in another lengthy budget stalemate without “dealing” with the State’s structural deficit, the Commonwealth will receive yet another credit downgrade, hiking the cost of borrowing….and creating “back door” tax increases.

“Every road project, every school construction project, every time a school district or the State want to take out a loan … that money will not go as far,” said DePasquale.

Pennsylvania has received multiple credit downgrades over the past few years. Rating agencies have cited the State’s growing pension debt, the use of one-time money sources to balance its budget, and, more recently, partisan gridlock.

DePasquale also noted that the nine month budget stalemate that stretched into 2016 drove school districts to borrow a total of nearly $1 billion, at an estimated cost of $50 million dollars in interest payments.

 

  1. The Washington Post (Ironically not The Philadelphia Inquirer) has offered this sad summary of public education in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania with this anecdote:  At Martin Luther King High, there aren’t enough textbooks to go around. If teachers want to make a photocopy, they have to buy paper themselves. Though an overwhelming majority of students are living in poverty, no social worker is available to help.

At Lower Merion High, in a nearby suburb, copy paper and textbooks are plentiful but are rarely necessary. Each student has a school-provided laptop. A pool allows for lifeguarding classes, and an arts wing hosts courses in photography, ceramics, studio art and jewelry making. The campus has a social worker.

Pennsylvania’s funding gap between public schools in its poorest neighborhoods versus public schools in affluent areas is the widest in the nation, according to federal data. Pennsylvania school districts with the highest poverty rates operate with 1/3 less financial support per pupil than affluent districts. Money matters in education! Typical Philadelphia classrooms of 25 students run with $75,000.00 less per annum than similar size public school suburban classrooms in affluent areas. Bridging this equity gap used to be a State responsibility but Harrisburg has ignored this growing problem for decades.

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