Punxsutawney Phil and Governor Corbett

I published a commentary this week on Governor Corbett's 2014-15 budget proposal this week in the Allentown Morning Call. Check it out.

Punxsutawney Phil is predicting more chilly weather ahead, but a winter-weary Gov. Tom Corbett must have spring on his mind. His budget address Tuesday painted a bright and rosy picture of Pennsylvania's future even as we remain in the grip of a long economic winter.

Pennsylvania's economy is not recovering as quickly as most states. Gov. Corbett, attempting to improve growth, made a bet that a billion dollars in new corporate tax cuts would fuel economic recovery, but that bet has been lost. Our unemployment rate has hovered above the national average for more than a year, and job growth trailed all but two other states last year.

Instead, corporate profits continue to rise, but those profitable corporations are paying less in taxes, if anything at all.

And Pennsylvania has faced one budget crisis after another, with the casualties falling largely on schoolchildren, local taxpayers and the state's economy.

Against this wintry backdrop, Gov. Corbett presented his new state budget.

He led early on with an increase in education funding that is indeed welcome news for many schools. One of the governor's first acts in office — a nearly billion-dollar cut to public schools — cost 20,000 jobs in schools and reduced offerings for students.

Students in Allentown are paying the price. After cutting 350 jobs over the past several years, school officials face more bad choices: new cuts this year or a 9 percent local tax hike.

The governor's budget makes no increase in basic education funding but does add $241 million to a new program, the Ready to Learn Block Grant. The program is welcome, but strings attached to those funds may prevent schools from restoring the basics that have been cut over the past three years — small classes, summer school, nurses and counselors, art, music and advanced courses. Common sense demands that we restore the basics and build from there.

The budget provides new dollars for schools by making changes to the state's pension system that will repeat many of the mistakes of the past.

The Pew Charitable Trusts and Laura and John Arnold Foundation recently estimated that nearly half of Pennsylvania's current pension debt stems from the commonwealth's failure to make annual required contribution payments. The last thing Pennsylvania should do now is kick the can down the road on pensions.

The governor's budget provides no increase for higher education institutions, locking in cuts made to public colleges and universities three years ago. It does include $25 million for a new, higher education scholarship fund. With state universities funded at mid-1990s levels now, most students will continue to pay relatively high tuition and graduate with significant debt. Keeping college affordable is not something "nice to have," but a key public responsibility.

The governor missed an opportunity by rejecting a federal expansion of Medicaid health coverage that a bipartisan group of governors embraced. That expansion would bring $4 billion into the state and create 35,000 good-paying jobs.

Go to Ohio, New York, New Jersey, Delaware or West Virginia, and a low-wage worker can obtain high-quality, low-cost health coverage through Medicaid. Come to Pennsylvania, and that worker is out of luck.

Instead, Gov. Corbett finds savings by cutting health care benefits for people who are sick or living with disabilities, savings that are unlikely to win federal approval. The commonwealth should not close a budget hole created by years of corporate tax cuts with benefits cuts to the most vulnerable Pennsylvanians.

The governor's budget relies on more than $1 billion in one-time revenue sources that will not be available for future budgets. To see the preschooler of today through to her high school graduation day, Pennsylvania needs a more sustainable approach to funding priorities like education that are so critical to our economic future.

New investments are welcome, but they have to be paid for. Pennsylvania can ensure that new funding for schools, people with disabilities, and early-learning programs can continue well into the future by rejecting a proposed reduction to a business tax that has already been cut by 90 percent and is paid by only a small percentage of large companies. Everyone must contribute to our state's future economic success.

After a long economic winter, the people of Pennsylvania are clamoring for warmer, sunnier days — with more jobs, greater job security and a brighter future for our children.

Will lawmakers hear their call?

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