Commentary: Making Better Budget Choices

Authored by Peg Dierkers and Stephen Drachler, co-chairs of the Better Choices for Pennsylvania Coalition, and originally published in the Delaware County Daily Times.

At a nursing home outside Pittsburgh, a man visits daily with his 68-year-old wife, who is gripped by severe dementia. He holds her hand and worries about what state budget cuts will mean for her care.

In Erie, Michelle and her two young girls found refuge from abuse at SafeNet’s emergency shelter. SafeNet worked closely with the family, but limited state funding limited their stay, even though Michelle needed more time to find permanent housing and get back on her feet.

In Ridley Township, a father took his 19-month-old girl with severe brain malformations to the hospital for a regular treatment in January only to learn that she no longer had health coverage. She was one of the 63,000 kids statewide to have their public health coverage cut off. Turns out her paperwork was sitting on a caseworker’s desk.

These are the Pennsylvanians affected by state budget decisions made over the past five years.

The news is as bad for Pennsylvania’s economy as it is for these families. State cuts have resulted in lost jobs in schools, nursing care facilities and hospitals.

Before the recession hit, Pennsylvania was on a very different track, investing to prepare our young people for the changing economy and spurring private investment in cities and towns. We did this, while not forgetting our grandparents, our children, and people living with disabilities.

The recession drove down state tax collections, forcing policymakers to make choices. Health and human services were cut under Gov. Rendell and the Legislature. And it got worse when Gov. Corbett and the new Legislature took office last year. Children have lost health care, and victims of violence have fewer places to turn.

The current budget undermines investments in higher education and our schools, especially those that serve kids from struggling families. It actually proposes to spend $2 on prisons for every dollar on colleges and universities.

How can we expect to prepare a well-educated workforce and a new generation of leaders when our government continues to cut funding for educating them?

The pattern continues in the new budget. Cuts to health care could prevent children from seeing a doctor when they get sick or limit the ability of people with disabilities from living independently. Cuts to full-day kindergarten and early childhood education will limit opportunities for our youngest children to get a head start in life.

Funding is eliminated for a program providing temporary assistance for very low-income adults who are sick or living with a disability, victims of domestic violence, or completing drug and alcohol treatment. County programs that help keep individuals with intellectual disabilities in lower cost community-based care rather than in institutions are on the chopping block. Cuts to health care funding threaten the care and safety of seniors.

This is not about cutting waste but rather pulling the rug out from under the people hit hardest by the recession.

There are better choices. Pennsylvania lawmakers can avoid deep cuts that hurt children, families and seniors without raising taxes.

Lawmakers must find smart cost-savings and efficiencies. The time has also come to close tax loopholes that allow profitable multi-state corporations to avoid paying state taxes. This is a luxury we can no longer afford and one that few states tolerate any more.

We should also delay tax cuts, such as a planned reduction in the state’s capital stock and franchise tax, until the economy recovers more. Over the years, tax cuts have shaved billions off the tax bills of corporations in Pennsylvania, but we haven’t gotten billions in new jobs.

At the end of the day, state spending cuts mean less growth, higher local taxes and college tuition, and a workforce unprepared for tomorrow’s economy. It means lost opportunities for our kids and less help for our parents and grandparents.

We need to get back on the right track by taking bold steps to rebuild Pennsylvania’s economy, not continuing corporate tax cuts that haven’t produced the promised jobs. Pennsylvania must take a balanced approach that looks for efficiencies, closes loopholes and delays unaffordable tax cuts.

We must once again make job-creating investments in education, health care and infrastructure, while doing everything possible to ensure that people can work, get the help they need and live productive lives.

The Legislature has an opportunity to do the right thing – to stand with worried families, seniors and our youngest children. Our state’s economy and well-being depend on it.

Peg Dierkers is executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Stephen Drachler is executive director of United Methodist Advocacy in Pennsylvania. They are also co-chairs of the Better Choices for Pennsylvania Coalition.