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Lawmakers must act to mitigate crisis

In the wake of the corona­virus pandemic, Pennsylvania workers, health care providers and students and families are faced with unprecedented obstacles that demand action from Harrisburg.

Gov. Tom Wolf has taken a strong approach by closing schools and shuttering so-called “non-life-sustaining” businesses. But could the cost of these drastic measures outweigh the perceived benefits? State legislators have a critical role to play in answering that question.

In this time of uncertainty, lawmakers must not be passive. Instead, they should advance their own solutions to the problems developing in their districts and among their constituents.

What should a legislative agenda look like?

Lawmakers must get serious about the looming unemployment crisis. The number of Pennsylvania workers laid off dwarfs all previous records. Suspending occupational licensing requirements would remove barriers to employment while unprecedented numbers of Pennsylvanians look for work.

Similarly, lawmakers should fix the tax code to help small businesses bounce back from this downturn. That means passing legislation allowing small business owners to deduct their losses — something corporations can already do — in future tax years.

Now more than ever, workers and businesses need flexibility, not a regulatory straitjacket. That means evaluating all the potential impacts of any new regulation or executive order and even rolling some of them back.

For example, after the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission closed restrooms and restaurants, lawmakers championed truckers — key to the supply chain for the products sustaining all of us, including the medical industry — who said this would make their work arduous, if not impossible. Turnpike facilities were quickly reopened.

Wolf’s well-intended directive to close “non-life-sustaining” business was poorly defined and would have shuttered businesses essential to saving lives. Thankfully, lawmakers are stepping in to ensure some crucial businesses are removed from the governor’s “banned” list, helping many workers return to their jobs and preserving the supply chain for food providers and medical equipment.

Before this crisis, balancing the state budget seemed manageable. Now it’s time to consider stop-gap measures to avoid a government shutdown as revenue declines. Wolf’s hiring freeze is a good first step, but lawmakers should also reduce nonessential spending to ensure government can fund critical services.

Years of overspending means the state’s rainy day fund is nearly dry. Lawmakers should shine a spotlight on the state’s $24 billion “shadow budget” and prioritize this hidden spending during this emergency.

Finally, lawmakers must offer students the option to continue learning while school buildings are closed. Education gaps can set students back for years. We can’t let that happen to Pennsylvania’s next generation.

Thankfully, many school districts are now providing online options. Many other charter and private schools are also well positioned to keep students learning. Cyber charter schools have years of experience in online education and have offered to assist other schools in developing their own online tools.

But many districts, including Philadelphia and Erie, aren’t offering students any instruction. Unfortunately, special interest groups are lobbying to stop schools from teaching and to prevent students — and the funds tied to their education — from leaving.

Legislators should step in and prioritize students over systems, suspending regulations that keep students from enrolling in an online learning program offered by another school district or a charter school. They should also expedite school district payments and ensure charter schools promptly receive funding for the students they educate.

And to provide immediate aid to families in this new learning environment — especially those facing layoffs — lawmakers should establish emergency flexible education accounts controlled by parents. A $2,000 account would help families afford tutors, online courses, therapists, or other education services critical to ensure children don’t miss out due to the pandemic.

We don’t have months or even weeks to consider these emergency measures. Lawmakers from both parties must step up now to limit the health and economic toll on Pennsylvania families.

Nathan Benefield is vice president and COO for the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free market think tank.

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