Pennsylvania residents have a serious choice to make, Gov. Tom Wolf said Monday — a bright and promising future invested in education or one built on a plan that’s been tried and doesn’t work.
Wolf called out state lawmakers and residents during a stop at Bellefonte Area High School as part of his “Schools that Teach” tour — stops at school districts around the state with discussion focused on the four core elements facing Pennsylvania.
The first, he said, is the focus on investing in schools and education. Every child in the state needs a good education, he said, so we can have the economy we want.
“If we don’t invest in education, we’re not going to have good students,” he said. “We’re not going to have a good future. That’s just a fact.”
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Investing in schools can be accomplished by the second element, he said — a “modest, reasonable severance tax” on the state’s flourishing gas industry.
Third on the list, he said, his establishing fair property taxes for school funding. Pennsylvania relies too much on local property taxes, he said, and there is too much focus on the local level.
Finally, he said, any budget passed in Harrisburg must make sense.
Pennsylvania’s credit has been downgraded five times, he said, nearing an almost 1 percent premium interest rate. About $17 billion has been borrowed so far, he said, and with $5 billion borrowed under the Republican-proposed budget, more than $20 billion could be not far off.
Under the current credit rating, Pennsylvania would pay an extra $200 million year in and year out, he said. While some have balked at his call for an extra $400 million in basic education investments, the state is already paying half that because of unbalanced budgets.
“If anyone ever tells you, ‘Don’t worry about the smoke and mirrors ... don’t worry about that because it will work out,’ ” he said. “It doesn’t.”
Wolf said some middle ground has been found, indicating that he has conceded on issues such as his original severance tax proposal. But he also said lawmakers need to “grow up, act like adults and make it work.”
“If we don’t want that bright future,” he said, “we can keep doing what we’ve been doing, and keep doing what your senator from this area wants to keep us doing.”
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, said the reason Pennsylvania has been knocked down by ratings agencies is because of the impending state employee pension crisis.
“The structural issue of the budget is insignificant compared to the pensions,” he said. “That’s what has rating agencies concerned about the state government.”
The GOP-backed pension bill would save about $11 billion on payments over about 30 years on a pension debt estimated at $53 billion. The bill would have diverted most future state government and public school employee pensions into a 401(k)-style retirement plan.
Wolf vetoed the bill Thursday.
Where the legislature goes from here, Corman said, he’s not sure.
“I find it somewhat ironic,” he said. “First of all that he comes to Bellefonte still campaigning as opposed to governing. And, second, that he complains about the rating agencies and he’s the one who vetoed a piece of legislation that would have moved us in a very positive step to regaining some of those higher ratings.”
For now, he said, the General Assembly will work with Wolf and assist him if he needs more money for education, but not at the cost of an across-the-board tax increase.
“This isn’t about education,” he said. “Our budget had historic new investments into education. If he needs more, we’re willing to work with him to make that happen, but we’re not going to give him $2.5 billion in new tax increases.”
Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Rush Township, agreed with Wolf’s comments, saying the only way for young people to compete in the world market is to make sure they have a better education and tools than the competitors.
“The governor is staying on point by using our own resources — that shale gas,” he said. “By using those fees, it’s going directly to education, it will lower property taxes and will give us exactly what we need.”
Conklin also supported the governor’s tour, saying Wolf is willing to talk one on one with the residents, a move he described as “refreshing.”
Hopefully, he said, all the representatives will recognize the common ground they have — a natural gas severance fee, closing certain loopholes — and understand they need to get the budget finalized.
“There are different things we can all agree on,” he said. “I think we need to sit down at the table, take what we can agree on, get the budget done and work on the rest of it for next year.”
Although neither the governor nor the lawmakers speculated on when a budget would pass, Bellefonte Area School District Superintendent Cheryl Potteiger said she was glad discussion was being made toward finding an equitable funding formula for education.
“The funding for education is vital, and I think there are a lot of good things in what (Wolf) has to propose,” she said. “And the fact that they’re starting to work together makes me a little bit happier.”
Potteiger commended the district’s business manager for keeping this year’s 1.3 percent increase below the 2.7 percent maximum, saying the district has been able to find savings through teacher attrition and scheduling the maximum use of teachers and class space available.
“We would like to have smaller class sizes in high school, to give more attention to each student,” she said, “but they did a great job with what we’ve got.”