After Gov. Tom Wolf proposed increasing funding for school districts, Senate Republican leaders sent a letter to the state’s school superintendents telling them not to count on getting the additional money.
The governor’s office called it a political stunt. A few days later, Wolf’s acting education chief sent school districts an email, asking superintendents to submit plans outlining how they plan to spend the new cash.
Senate Republicans called it a political stunt. And, in a way, both were.
As Wolf and the General Assembly begin cobbling together a state budget by the end of June, the political lines are drawn.
Wolf has proposed sweeping reform of the state’s tax structure, while looking to increase the state’s share of funding for local schools — something fiscally challenged urban districts desperately need. His proposals were met with predictable opposition.
At issue is, well … everything. And a lot of questions remain about, well … everything.
Wolf has proposed raising certain taxes — the sales tax and the income tax — and reducing others with the goal of funneling money to school districts to allow them to reduce property taxes. The governor’s plan also calls for floating a bond to help fund the state’s burgeoning pension obligations (though Republicans rightly complain he doesn’t seem to want to do anything to reform the pension system going forward).
Wolf has called his budget “a holistic plan,” one in which all of the parts are necessary for it to work.
Republicans don’t like some of those parts. But they haven’t yet come up with a concrete counter-proposal. They are in favor of eliminating property taxes, but it’s not clear whether their ideas for replacing the lost revenue are fair or adequate.
The reality is that there is no magic solution to the state’s budget problems. You can’t eliminate property taxes without raising taxes somewhere else. There is no proposal that would be completely painless. The state, and its taxpayers, have obligations and they have to meet them.
If you change the status quo, there will be winners and there will be losers. Some will be hit harder than others. Some will benefit more than others. There will be endless debate about whether any particular proposal helps or hurts the broad and nebulous “middle class.”
Even when the Republican-controlled General Assembly had a Republican in the governor’s office, it had a hard time passing a budget. And now that the governor’s office is in the hands of a Democrat, that task has become even more difficult.
The funny thing is, both sides seem to have similar goals. They both want to see schools funded adequately. They both want to do something to bring the state’s taxation system into the 21st century. They both want to reduce or eliminate property taxes.
The disagreement is on how to get there.
Wolf has said repeatedly that he is open to other ideas, that he is willing to compromise to reach the goals that both parties share. Republicans must sincerely take him up on a proposal to compromise.
Fortunately, it is early in the process. The opportunity exists for those who were elected to govern to show that they are really up to governing.
Of course, similar words are said every year. And every year the battle over the budget slogs on until the deadline looms and the state is threatened with a shutdown. And something is then passed at the last minute that results in the state pushing problems off until next year. And then the same thing happens again the next year. It shouldn’t be that way.
Harrisburg shouldn’t be a miniature version of Washington. Check your egos at the door, sit down and start negotiating in earnest. Now, please!