GOP juggles deficit, schools, pandemic in budget debate
HARRISBURG — Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania are working to assemble a budget plan that would use billions in federal pandemic relief and surplus state tax dollars to help prop up existing programs, boost aid to public schools and inject cash into sectors hard-hit by the pandemic.
The extra cash sloshing around has brought a blitz of requests on how to use it, while Democrats are asking for farther-reaching on taxes and schools to accelerate the state’s population growth.
It is not all found money, especially as Pennsylvania faces a shrinking working-age population in the coming years who will foot a growing bill for expensive human services.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, said the state’s finances are under extreme pressure to meet growing demands on health care and human services, in particular long-term care for the elderly.
“This is the problem that we have,” Browne said.
Even maintaining current programs by using all of the $7.3 billion from the American Rescue Plan bill signed by President Joe Biden in March and $3 billion in surplus state tax collections over the next three years will leave Pennsylvania with a deficit, Browne said.
Republicans also worry that tax collections are headed for a slowdown after vast amounts of federal relief works its way through the economy and consumer spending cools down.
The new fiscal year begins July 1, and lawmakers say they expect to wrap up work on the budget plan next week.
While Republicans are behind closed doors considering which hard-hit sectors to help with the federal aid, Democratic lawmakers have rolled out expansive plans to use it. Those plans include things like improvements to school technology and aging school buildings, or grants for housing programs and frontline workers.
Highway builders, hospitals, nursing homes, affordable housing advocates, youth violence prevention advocates and others are also seeking a share.
Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, said he would like to help nursing homes and affordable housing efforts, as examples of sectors that are struggling in the wake of the pandemic.
Decisions on how to use the money are being influenced by work in Washington to assemble a wide-ranging infrastructure funding plan that could bring billions more federal dollars to Pennsylvania.
Then there is Gov. Tom Wolf’s top priority that Republicans say they are trying to accommodate. The Democrat in February asked the Republican-controlled Legislature for a $1.35 billion boost in aid to public school operations and instruction, or 20% more, on top of the $6.8 billion they currently receive.
The majority of that $8.1 billion would go out through a 6-year-old school funding formula designed to iron out inequities in how Pennsylvania funds the poorest public schools. Only a fraction goes through it now.