Protesters rally for spending priorities at state Capitol

Alicia Witherite, of Bellefonte, joins protesters on the steps of the Capitol taking part in a rally for education funding through the Good Jobs and Healthy Communities coalition.
Alicia Witherite, of Bellefonte, joins protesters on the steps of the Capitol taking part in a rally for education funding through the Good Jobs and Healthy Communities coalition. Photo provided

Although a Republican-led budget was vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf Tuesday, a group of more than 60 parents and taxpayers who rallied together at the beginning of the week are holding their ground until a state budget is passed.

The crowd is part of the Good Jobs and Healthy Communities coalition and has occupied the front steps of the state Capitol, calling for “fair education funding, an increase in the minimum wage, tax relief for working families and a common-sense severance tax on Marcellus Shale,” a coalition news release said.

Among the occupiers is Bellefonte-resident Alicia Witherite, who said she was participating on behalf of her 2-year-old son Gavyn and the state’s need for additional education funding.

“He’s not fully in the school system yet,” she said. “But if they keep continuing this way, I can’t imagine how it will be in the next few years when he starts.”

While she said she wasn’t concerned with any area schools needing to close, issues like a lack of supplies and books or shortages of teachers seemed possible.

The group rallied on the Capitol steps when they first arrived Monday, she said, doing what they could to bring the public’s attention to the education funding issue. They spoke out at legislative offices, attempting to meet with the various lawmakers.

The occupiers met Thursday with Wolf, she said, saying he showed his support for their efforts and has been backing them up.

The veto gave them the hope that the governor is on the right track, she said.

“We definitely have a lot of hope that he’s listening and we’re heading in the right direction,” she said.

Despite the veto, Wolf was clear he was looking for a compromise, Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Rush Township, said.

“I can tell you there was no compromise,” he said. “It was basically the same budget that we ran last year.”

Anytime you talk about education funding, he said, it translates into property taxes. The less the state funds, the more the school board needs to raise those taxes. What the governor is looking for now is the ability to provide an equal playing field among all the school districts.

“I’m proud of the folks that are rallying,” he said. “They’re fighting for what I believe is the only way we can level the playing field to give every child — especially in rural Pennsylvania — the chance to compete in a world market.”

But some argued that adequate educational funding was already part of the vetoed budget. Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, said that an additional $100 million in education funding was part of the proposal.

“Despite what some people want others to believe,” he said, “that is more collective money put into education ever in the history of Pennsylvania.”

Benninghoff said he thought the state House and Senate did a good job considering when the Wolf budget was initially brought up, it received no votes from either Republicans or Democrats. Collectively, a bipartisan education committee and appropriations committee put together the proposal that crossed the governor’s desk Tuesday — a budget that also put full payments into the school pension subsidies.

“This is a reasonable budget,” he said. “The governor is the one who’s choosing not to sign it.”

The coalition plans to occupy the Capitol and meet with lawmakers until a budget is passed, Witherite said.

“I just hope everyone understands how important this is and goes with us on this,” she said. “It’s our future needs for all of our children.”