Let’s Not Overlook Consensus in Both Reports
As a co-chair of the Basic Education Funding Commission, I was proud of the work we – as Republicans and Democrats – were able to accomplish over the better part of a year.
Months of work culminated into two votes at our final meeting on two different reports – both of which had nearly identical recommendations for our statutory charge: to review and make suggestions to the formula that drives out your hard-earned tax dollars that you send to Harrisburg to each of the state’s 500 public school districts.
But headlines following the commission’s months of work came to one conclusion: billions in new spending were supported by the commission.
The commission took two votes: one on a report that I supported that prioritized updating the formula to drive those dollars to districts in a way that will provide greater predictability to the districts so school directors – the people you elect locally to manage your local school district’s budgets – and budgeting officials can better forecast state support. Additionally, the legislature and the current and past governors have made significant (or “historic” – their words, not mine) investments (see: your tax dollars) into public education.
As recently as this past December, a divided (but not dysfunctional) state government, approved a new program to help school districts remediate asbestos and lead. Both reports recommend continuing this new program.
But the other vote that was taken, which was on a report I could not support, seeks to spend $7 billion in new funding for public education. Without a tax hike on Pennsylvanians, this would bankrupt our state.
The popular saying is especially true and applicable to state legislators: Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. More than a decade ago, legislators and then Gov. Ed Rendell spent one-time federal funds on education. Once newly elected Gov. Tom Corbett took office, those one-time funds were just that – one-time. Education advocates demanded the same amount as the year prior, but officials then could not match those one-time federal funds.
We see a renewed effort today where some lawmakers have proposed using one-time funds from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to bolster recurring education expenditures. Eventually, the well will run dry. Pennsylvania’s Rainy Day Fund has been brought from nearly last place to middle of the pack compared to other states under two Democratic administrations through bipartisan understanding that a healthy Rainy Day Fund means taxpayers are best protected from future fiscal crises.
I asked the state’s treasurer if it makes sense to spend one-time dollars on recurring expenditures. She gave an emphatic “no” during a public hearing on the state budget. We would be wise to heed her sound advice and avoid economic catastrophe.
There are two constants in Harrisburg: One-time funding means non-recurring, and politicians will continue to support spending one-time funds on recurring expenditures. The former constant will not change, but hopefully the latter will. And sooner rather than later!
I am hopeful now that both reports are publicly accessible, my colleagues in both chambers will take up the recommendations that have bipartisan consensus.
At the end of the day, the commission’s recommendations are just that – recommendations. It is up to the 253 members of the General Assembly and the governor to enact said recommendations.
But before anyone jumps into the deep end of suggesting billions of new tax dollars for education, you better think of how you will pay for that. Harrisburg officials cannot do what politicians in Washington, D.C. can do – print more money. We have an annual budget that must be balanced each year. Washington does not and has not balanced its budget in decades.
Absent a plan to pay for this new spending recommendation (i.e., put up a tax increase vote), let’s get back to reality and build on the good bipartisan work that is already occurring in the education space.