Commentary: Governor Corbett's Budget Falls Short on Education, Health Care and Taxes

Authored by Sharon Ward, originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

After a long economic downturn, the people of Pennsylvania are clamoring for better days -- more jobs, greater job security and a brighter future for our children. In his budget address Tuesday, Gov. Tom Corbett said Pennsylvania's best days lie ahead, but there is little in his spending plan that would improve the lives of ordinary Pennsylvanians.

Mr. Corbett's budget would do little to undo the damage done by the deep cuts to education and health care enacted during his first two years. It also fails to take advantage of an opportunity to expand health care coverage that would strengthen our economy. Instead, it would waste taxpayer dollars on corporate tax breaks that have no track record of creating jobs.

One of the governor's first acts in office -- a nearly billion-dollar cut to public schools -- remains largely intact. These spending reductions have led to the loss of 20,000 teachers, counselors and other school personnel, and have contributed to declines in student performance, reversing several years of progress. Schools cannot help students prepare to enter a global economy when cuts have increased class sizes in 70 percent of districts, reduced elective courses in 44 percent and cut tutoring in 35 percent.

A new initiative in the governor's budget would fund a "Passport for Learning" block grant with proceeds from liquor privatization -- a plan that has twice failed to pass the Legislature. Improving student safety and science and math education are critical to our kids' future; they should be funded with real and certain dollars.

The governor's budget provides no increase for higher education, locking in cuts made to public colleges and universities two years ago. Community colleges say they will have to increase tuition above the rate of inflation this year. Students in Pennsylvania already pay relatively high tuition and graduate with significant debt. Keeping college affordable is not something "nice to have," but a key public responsibility.

Over the years, lawmakers have failed to make required pension payments and now the bill has come due. The governor has proposed pension changes for current employees which may violate the state constitution. Changes proposed for new employees would likely enlarge the problem by increasing unfunded liabilities.

Worse, the money saved by the far-from-certain pension changes would go to important programs -- pre-kindergarten, the Children's Health Insurance Program and services for individuals with disabilities -- that should have a reliable source of funding.

Gov. Corbett decided to forgo a federal expansion of health coverage through Medicaid that has been embraced by a bipartisan group of governors. This is a missed opportunity not only for the veterans and working families who would have been made eligible for coverage, but also for hospitals across the state.

Medicaid expansion would draw $3.8 billion in federal investment each year, creating tens of thousands of jobs in health care services and manufacturing. If the commonwealth can spend more than $1 billion to attract a $5 billion natural-gas cracker plant that might create hundreds of jobs, it makes sense to put up only $2 billion to claim nearly $38 billion in federal investment and create tens of thousands of jobs.

The governor's transportation-funding plan is welcome but requires a higher local contribution for mass transit, something that cash-strapped transit systems can ill afford.

Hidden deep within his budget are new tax breaks for corporations that do not oblige them to create jobs in Pennsylvania. The commonwealth already loses $2.5 billion a year to corporate tax breaks. The new ones would stand regardless of Pennsylvania's fiscal health, tying the hands of future leaders. And the budget is silent on loopholes that allow corporations to shift profits tax-free to Delaware and Nevada. Instead, it rewards tax avoidance with more tax cuts.

The governor claims his budget would not raise taxes on Pennsylvanians, but it would pass the buck to school districts and local governments -- and onto local taxpayers. We need a budget that returns to tried-and-true investments in education and public infrastructure, the kind that can build a foundation for Pennsylvania's long-term economic competitiveness. This would ensure that our best days truly are ahead.

Sharon Ward is Director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center in Harrisburg.