As we quickly approach the end of the 2015-16 legislative session this fall, I wanted to keep you informed on some of the issues that I have been working on as well as an update on the 2016-17 state budget.
While we enter what will likely be an intense political season, let us never forget that it is the results that elected leaders produce that are most important.
I strongly believe that we have to move beyond talking about the challenges that face Lancaster County and Pennsylvania and insist that all of our leaders, from the local level to the federal level, commit to producing results that we know best advance us towards an opportunity society, where everyone - regardless of their station in life - has a chance to experience earned success.
I certainly wish you and your family a wonderful, safe and enjoyable summer and you should never hesitate to contact me if I can be of assistance or if you would like to share your thoughts about any issue pending before the Senate.Warmest regards,
On June 30th, the General Assembly passed the 2016-17 budget. On July 12th that spending plan became law without Governor Wolf’s signature.
The 2016-17 budget increases spending by $1.4 billion, a 4.7% increase over 2015-16 levels. You may recall that in February, Governor Wolf requested $3.2 billion more in spending.
You should know that in the 2016-17 approved budget, mandatory and contractual increases represented $1.2 billion of the $1.4 billion increase in spending. These costs have primarily been driven by increases in human services, corrections, the State Police, and state employee and teacher pension contributions.
Other, non-mandated increases in the budget focused on investments in education. An additional $200 million was included for basic education, as well as a $25 million increase for pre-K, a $5 million increase for Head Start and $20 million more for special education.
While I am happy to support increased funding, we must not forget that money alone is not the answer. Substantive educational reforms must continue to be pursued so that the large investments we are making will produce results consistent with those contributions.
Another area of the budget that received increases was the Department of Agriculture. Overall, the department’s budget was increased by 5%. The General Assembly restored and expanded funding for Agricultural Excellence, Agricultural Research, Farmers’ Market Food Coupons, Agricultural Promotion, Education and Exports, Hardwoods Research and Promotion, Livestock Show and Open Dairy Show.
Pennsylvania’s economy cannot work properly without a strong agricultural sector, and these modest investments today will pay big economic dividends tomorrow. Our farmers and those in production agriculture which are the backbone of Lancaster County’s economy need to know that we support them.
In response to the opioid crisis that is spreading across Pennsylvania, the General Assembly included a $15 million appropriation in the 2016-17 budget.
I have heard from many people in the 36th Senatorial District who are seeing heroin and prescription drug abuse more often, and we have to get out in front of this terrible disease now, before it becomes an epidemic.
I am hopeful that these monies will be used to assist those who need it the most and help eradicate this plague that is destroying individuals, families and communities.
While I am pleased that the current budget avoided the problems we encountered last year which produced the state’s longest budget impasse, I continue to press for substantive reforms to address those cost-drivers which have plagued state government for too many years. I discuss those efforts below.
School Code Accomplishments Promote Innovation and Cost Savings
Alongside the adoption of the state budget, the General Assembly passed, and the Governor signed into law many changes to the Public School Code.
Included in that legislation were two proposals that I introduced and worked with my House colleagues from Lancaster County to advance.
One proposal would allow school districts to partner with each other to perform routine administrative functions in order to cut costs and improve educational opportunities for students and educators.
The plan will allow school districts to negotiate an agreement to share administrative personnel, including superintendents, business administrators, office personnel and management, as well as certain services with support and technical assistance from the Department of Education.
Other amendments included the creation of a program I introduced along with Rep. Mindy Fee to establish hybrid learning grants that blend digital resources with traditional classroom instruction. Both the hybrid learning and administrative partnerships proposals were introduced based on innovative plans developed by Lancaster County school districts.
Budget Revenue Package
In order to balance the 2016-17 state budget, additional revenue was necessary. While I recognize there are unavoidable costs which state government must pay, I could not support the $1.3 billion legislative revenue package that was proposed and agreed to by the governor and Democratic and Republican legislative leaders.
After careful consideration, I voted against this effort to raise more money for government through imposing additional taxes. I believe that there were other sources of revenue that would have been more appropriate to consider.
Under the revenue package that is now law, cigarette taxes were increased by $1 per pack, a new tobacco products tax was levied on smokeless tobacco, roll-you-own tobacco and electronic cigarettes, the state sales and use tax is now applied to digital downloads, the personal income tax will now be imposed on lottery winnings, and the rate of the bank shares tax was increased.
These new taxes might help state government pay its bills, but they only further harm our Commonwealth’s already challenged economy and will disproportionately hurt Lancaster County’s agriculture industries, farmers, and the poor. Furthermore, the experience of other states tells us that though we may enjoy a near-term influx of revenue, over time this revenue declines and states must look elsewhere to close the new gap in revenues.
As I previously mentioned, one of primary reasons the new revenue was necessary was because spending increased by 4.7 percent over 2015-16 levels, largely due to mandated costs associated with public sector pensions, human services and corrections.
For too many years lawmakers have lacked the political courage to tackle the difficult, but necessary reforms to finally address the cost-drivers in our budget that are demanding more and more taxpayer monies. While this revenue bill raised $1.3 billion, those new monies pale in comparison to what will be needed in the years to come without substantive changes to pensions, human services and how we manage our corrections system.
As an example of uncontrolled mandated increases in spending, $345 million was needed in new contributions to pay for teacher pensions and $140 million more for state employee pensions. The total state government contributions for public pensions now tops $5.8 billion each year.
I think we need to be honest - Pennsylvania has both a spending and revenue problem, and we absolutely have to get better at managing both.
I believe that the best way to fund government is to have a strong economy, low unemployment and be a state that welcomes entrepreneurs, business and industry. We can naturally grow our way to prosperity and generate new revenue by promoting good economic policies which results in increased economic activity.
Unfortunately, in the development of the new revenue plan, there was little effort to further identify waste, fraud and abuse in state government programs and services, which could have alleviated the necessity to impose as many additional taxes.
Lawmakers should not ask people to pay more until we make every effort to stop cheaters and reclaim the monies they have taken. Representative Mindy Fee and I have offered legislation to establish and Independent office of Inspector General to do just this. To learn more about this effort, click here.
Finally, this budget again highlights the need for the General Assembly take a serious look at various budget reform proposals that have been introduced, including the use of a biennial budget, a zero-based or performance based budget, and a default budget. You can learn more about these budget reform proposals here.
For more information regarding the 2016-2017 state budget, please visit my budget blog. My blog has been updated to include the specific “tracking run” detailing the adopted budget by line-item.
New Welfare Fraud Legislation
Did you know that each welfare fraud investigator within the Office of Inspector General saves taxpayers approximately $1.28 million?
And did you know that for every $1 spent within the Office of Inspector General we can save taxpayers $13?
This is precisely why I worked with Senator Dave Argall to introduce legislation proposing to hire additional staff with the Office of Inspector General with a sole focus on investigating claims about welfare fraud, abuse and misconduct.
Our legislation is intended to catch cheaters who steal from taxpayers and divert scarce resources away from those people who legitimately need help.
Sen. Argall and I believe that this legislation is needed now because of Governor Wolf’s unilateral decision to expand Medicaid in Pennsylvania under the federal Affordable Care Act. Since Governor Wolf has come into office, more than 500,000 Pennsylvanians have been added to the Medicaid rolls.
Appointment to the State System of Higher Education Board of Governors
I received notification from the President Pro Tempore of the Senate that I have been appointed to the Board of Governors for the State System of Higher Education.
I am thrilled to have an opportunity to help manage one of the crown jewels of Pennsylvania – our state owned institutions of higher education. For many Lancaster County families, higher education would not be possible without institutions such as Millersville or Shippensburg University.
As a person who is passionate about creating opportunity for young people, this appointment will allow me to continue to advance one of the pillars of prosperity – education.
I recently finished a yearlong project to create a video depicting our Capitol Building. My goal was to provide important information about Pennsylvania’s rich history, including our deep religious tolerance roots, which are often forgotten or overlooked.
While lengthy, I think you will enjoy the 52 minute program, which walks you through the founding of the colony to the modern day challenges facing our Commonwealth.
If you would like to view this program, you may do so by clicking this link or by calling my office and requesting a DVD.
As always, I welcome your feedback, comments, and questions. I sincerely thank you for the opportunity to serve and you should know that my door is always open.
Senate Box 203036