POLS ON THE STREET: Pa. Budget Done (the Easy Part, at Least)

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FIGHTING illegal stop-and-go retailers in her Northwest Philadelphia district, Councilwoman Cindy Bass led a band of 30 volunteers to enter suspect establishments to find out if they offered seating and tables for 30 restaurant patrons, as required by law. Many, she found, could not – yet were freely selling takeout alcohol regardless. Photo by Wendell Douglas

BY JOE SHAHEELI
Just in time for the 4th of July break, the Pennsylvania Senate passed a $31.99-billion spending budget for Fiscal Year 2017-18. It reflected a willingness on the part of both the Republican-controlled General Assembly and Gov. Tom Wolf’s Democratic administration to avoid painful cuts to core constituencies’ favored programs.

State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-W. Phila.), the Democratic chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, set the tone for the Democrats’ victory lap.

“This budget is the result of a concerted effort to move Pennsylvania forward thoughtfully and responsibly,” said Hughes. “Given today’s economic and political environment, we decided to work together to get something positive done.”

Hughes said the budget plan, which the Senate approved by a 43-7 vote, steered closer to Wolf’s initial budget proposal and restored draconian cuts that were proposed during the budget negotiation process.

“The governor proposed an austere budget that was modest and it attempted to address our social and political reality. Throughout the budget process, we had significant conversations with all parties to get us to a point where we came close to the governor’s proposal,” Hughes said. “We restored cuts made in the House Republican plan, we were thoughtful about how we restructure government and we presented a foundation for the future.”

The 2017-18 Fiscal Year state budget invests an additional $100 million in basic education, which almost fully restores the cuts to education under Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration, as well as $25 million for special education, $25 million for Pre-k, $5 million for Head Start, $11 million for Early Intervention and $8.9 million for higher education.

The budget also invests in the economy by supporting state programs that focus on job creation, economic development and the agricultural industry.

The spending plan paves the way to merge the Pennsylvania Department of Health & Department of Human Services, as well as merge the Department of Corrections and Board of Probation & Parole — a plan spearheaded by the Senate Democrats. The consolidations will save taxpayer dollars and streamline services for our most vulnerable citizens. It also continues to address the opioid epidemic through additional investments in drug and alcohol programs.

Hughes’ Republican counterpart, Appropriations Committee Chair State Sen. Pat Browne (R-Lehigh), said, “In recognizing the financial challenges the Commonwealth continues to face, this budget provides a fiscally responsible spending plan with a modest increase in funding for vital state programs and services, while still protecting hard working individuals and job creators from onerous tax increases.  This budget also continues the state’s dedication to providing a quality education for all Pennsylvania students as it increases funding for basic education, special education, early childhood education and early intervention to unprecedented levels.”

COBBS CREEK Environmental Education Center held an open house last Saturday. Retired science teacher Carole Williams-Green, C, who was the inspiration for the environmental center, was flanked at the open house by her son, State Sen. Anthony Williams, and Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell. Photo by Wendell Douglas

Regardless of party, local governments were relieved by the deal. The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, representing all 67 counties in the commonwealth, issued a statement that “the approved funding will enable counties to maintain investments in successful criminal justice system reforms and to provide human services programs in the face of increasing caseloads. The quick action on the agreement, in advance of the fiscal year deadline, also provides funding certainty for counties, which are in the middle of their calendar-base fiscal years.

“Counties are truly grateful for the work of leadership and members in all caucuses to address the needs of counties and their mutual constituents, and look forward to continued discussions about the state/county partnership in delivering core government services.”

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association said it was “pleased that Gov. Tom Wolf’s original $100 million increase in Basic Education Funding and $25 million increase in special-education funding have been preserved in the state budget currently going to his desk.

“We are sympathetic to the difficult financial situation Pennsylvania faces, but strongly believe investments in our children’s education pay dividends now and into the future,” said PSBA Executive Director Nathan Mains. “We are pleased that in the face of many other budget challenges, the General Assembly has seen the value in making school funding a priority.” Those will be sweet words to incumbents seeking re-election next year.

Environmentalists did not applaud the outcome. The Sierra Club PA Chapter, PennFuture,

Conservation Voters of PA and Natural Resources Defense Council issued a joint communiqué decrying “a spending package that threatens our environment, natural resources, and public health by slashing funding and continuing a decade-long evisceration of key agencies.”

“No citizen in Pennsylvania voted for a platform of closing state park beaches or campgrounds and making our water less safe, but that’s what the legislature just delivered in this budget,” said Josh McNeil of Conservation Voters of PA. “Making these cuts to our environmental agencies without creating a severance tax on gas drillers should be a major black mark on the record of those who supported this bill.”

Service Employees International Union State Council President Gabe Morgan, a fiercely progressive advocate, acknowledged, “There are many things in the final product to be happy about.”

But Morgan skewered the deal with a tart criticism: “There is still no agreement on how to pay for this budget. Legislative leaders want to balance the books by taking on new debt and mortgaging our children’s future, a solution that will do nothing to pull Pennsylvania off the loop of fiscal insanity.”

Morgan’s charge is correct. A budget that omits how to pay for the things it plans to buy is kind of like a one-sided coin – not a real financial instrument at all.

AMERICAN Federation of Government Employees local unions rallied at Independence Mall last month to protest proposed federal budget cuts. Affected would be workers at Independence National Historical Park, the Environmental Protection Agency, federal courts and other agencies with staff in Philadelphia. Local 3633 President Gary Morton, L, drew personal support from Philadelphia AFL-CIO President Pat Eiding. Photo by Wendell Douglas

Krasner Wins DC 47 Nod

Nobody expected Democratic nominee for Philadelphia district attorney, career defense lawyer Larry Krasner, to gain the backing of the Fraternal Order of Police Local 5, and he didn’t. But he has secured the endorsement of another key public union, AFSCME District Council 47. DC 47 has many members who work in public safety, including fire, prisons, and other major city departments.

DC 47 President Fred Wright said. “We know Larry will fight for the people and ensure the criminal-justice system works for all Philadelphians. I know Larry will be the responsible steward of the public trust that we need. The brothers and sisters of AFSCME DC 47 will be working to ensure Larry Krasner gets elected on Nov. 7.”

Toomey’s BCRA Stand Hit by Row Officers

State Treasurer Joe Torsella and Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, popular Democrats with fiscal expertise, have entered the fray in Washington over the Republicans’ Better Care Reconciliation Act, which is intended to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act.

US Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) has been a prime mover of this legislation and is adamant that “Obamacare” is fiscally unstable. But the Republicans’ alternative has proved to be politically unstable, as their own Senate caucus cannot agree on it.

Torsella and DePasquale shot off a letter to Toomey charging BCRA would make the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s budget unsustainable. Earlier in June, we sent a letter to the General Assembly and to Gov. Wolf to sound the alarm about the precarious state of Pennsylvania’s General Fund.

“The Commonwealth is currently grappling with a $3-billion structural deficit. Additionally, our future projections show that we can expect the General Fund to be in a negative balance for eight consecutive months in the fiscal year that begins July 1,” they wrote.

“We believe it is critical that you and Pennsylvania’s other federal representatives act in the state’s best interests. BCRA would devastate Pennsylvania families by increasing the state’s structural deficit by up to an additional $3 billion. Passage of the BCRA will necessitate large state tax increases, force hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians off of their health insurance, or some combination of those factors. In addition, the loss of health insurance for constituents in our state will result in job losses in Pennsylvania’s health-care industry, further strain families, and drain tax revenue from the state’s already negative General Fund,” they continued.

“Quite simply, the path outlined by the bill is fiscally dangerous to the Commonwealth and its residents. We hope that you, as one of our federal representatives, would help our state as we seek to achieve fiscal stability.”

JwJ Hires New Chief

Philadelphia Area Jobs with Justice, a progressive coalition of labor unions and student, community and faith groups, will introduce a new executive director, Devan Spear, at its Solidarity Awards Dinner.

It marks the end of an era for Gwen Snyder, who has led JwJ for eight years as it seeks to recruit allies for fair treatment of workers among activists outside the formal labor movement.

“Devan has been an active member of and organizer with Philly JwJ for years now, and I couldn’t think of a better person to lead us going forward,” Snyder said. “I can’t wait for you to get introduced – I think she’s phenomenal, and I’m guessing you’ll feel the same way.”

Snyder said she will be “moving on to new organizing adventures, but I’m sure I’ll still be seeing you around the city, on picket lines and out protesting corporate greed.”

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