In his sixth budget address, Gov. Tom Wolf asked us to “imagine” what Pennsylvania would look like if he could purchase everything on his wish list. To cover the costs, he wants to raise overall spending a massive 6.1 percent. He also wants to borrow $5.5 billion—a loan that our kids will be paying off with interest for the next 30 years.
It doesn’t take much imagination to know that we can’t borrow or tax our way to prosperity.
Pennsylvania is already $121 billion in debt. That’s $9,000 for every man, woman, and child in the state. Adding billions more is worse than irresponsible.
Including gimmicks like the “shadow budget” and earmarks, our budget process is already rife with sneaky tactics to squeeze billions of extra dollars out of Pennsylvanians’ wallets to fund questionable government programs with little oversite or transparency.
But Wolf is finding even more ways to spend money we don’t have. Agencies and departments under Wolf’s supervision routinely spend far beyond the budget lawmakers approve. How much more? Wolf has overspent by more than $1 billion in the last two years alone. It seems that if Wolf can’t convince the legislature to spend as much as he wants, he’s willing to ignore them.
Lawmakers must take back control and reject Wolf’s tax, borrow, and spend dreams. That means applying restraints on ballooning spending and pursuing solutions that can do more for less.
Take education, for example. Wolf needs to learn that we can’t fix the problems in our schools by simply throwing more money at them. Wolf proudly proposed borrowing $1.1 billion for school buildings. But he didn’t mention that school districts are currently sitting on reserve funds of $4.6 billion. Wouldn’t it make sense to dip into school reserves to fund school improvements before borrowing another billion dollars?
Nor did he mention that Pennsylvania already spends $3,900 more per student than the national average. State funding for public schools has hit a record high of $12.5 billion for the fifth consecutive year. Nobody can say we aren’t investing in our students.
Still, families across the state are dissatisfied. Many have sought alternatives like charter schools and scholarships for private education, with tens of thousands of kids on waiting lists or outright denied both of these school choice options.
Wolf seems willfully ignorant of these facts. As President Trump brought to light in his State of the Union address, Wolf vetoed bipartisan legislation bolstering tax credit scholarships, stranding 50,000 low- and middle-income students in schools they were trying to leave.
And now the governor is waging all-out war against charter schools, announcing his intention to cut funding for charter school students. The changes would drive thousands of students out of the schools they’ve chosen, in many cases back to the schools they fled. Despite the fact that these programs save taxpayers billions of dollars and are wildly popular with voters, Wolf took them to task in his address, calling them a “sham” and “little more than fronts for private management companies.”
We can spend our money smarter through sound policy, and we can make hard budgeting decisions easier for lawmakers by placing real limits on spending.
The General Assembly should pass the Taxpayer Protection Act as soon as possible, which limits spending increases to keep the budget in line with population and inflation. If the Taxpayer Protection Act had been in effect since 2003, Pennsylvanians would have saved more than $12,000 per family of four. This commonsense bill, which enjoys bipartisan support, will ensure that future economic downturns won’t leave Pennsylvania even deeper in debt.
Wolf should consider smart solutions like these before mortgaging our state’s financial future. He can’t assume Pennsylvanians will always have more money to throw at our state’s problems. Nor should he assume they’ll “imagine” along with him on the road to financial ruin.
Nathan Benefield is Vice President and COO of the Commonwealth Foundation (CommonwealthFoundation.org), Pennsylvania’s free market think tank.