By Tony May
It’s a non brainer that another budget debacle serves no one – not the beneficiaries of state programs, not school districts reliant on state funding or local governments who share in the Commonwealth’s tax collection and distribution functions. And certainly not legislators up for re-election who need to be home campaigning and not the governor who has been feeling the heat from both friends and foes over last year’s budget mess.
So, at last, after more than a year of seemingly petty bickering and in-fighting, we seem to be agreed on something: getting out of town by June 30. So how do we do it?
There are a number of ways this can go but here is the cleanest and the fairest:
- Gov. Tom Wolf agrees to accept a budget for 2016-17 that is funded without an increase in the personal income tax or major changes to the state sales tax in return for a pledge from at least some Republican leaders to work cooperatively on addressing broad-based tax and spending needs in a comprehensive package in 2017.
- The General Assembly finds a way to pump some additional funds into Pennsylvania public schools in 2016-2017 with the recognition that urban schools need special attention and funding.
- The leadership of both political parties in the legislature names delegates from the private sector and the community to sit with nominees to be named by the governor to a special blue ribbon panel on Pennsylvania’s future program and revenue needs (kudos to my colleague and friend, George Wolff, for proposing this initiative). The commission should be tasked with producing an interim report by December 2016 and a long-term blue print by summer 2017.
Normally, commissions and study panels are created to avoid confronting major areas of disagreement. In this case, the panel would provide a new – and less partisan – perspective on where the state is and where it is heading.
The current problem with today’s General Assembly is a wide rift not between Democrats and Republicans but between Republicans who believe that government has a legitimate role in the lives of citizens and a growing element in the GOP that wants to kill government at most any cost short of insurrection.
Nowhere is the chasm between the two wings of the GOP more evident than in the current debate over the operation of bricks and mortar and cyber charter schools.
The most basic tenets of Republican fiscal responsibility have been thrown out the window in favor of ideological purity – the blind acceptance of the belief that any private school is preferable to a public (or :”government”) school. Charters – both cyber and traditional – are given the same state funding as public schools without regards to actual costs. It’s a more flawed policy than the federal government’s cost-plus contracts with defense contractors. In the case of charter schools, you can spend your per student allocation any way you want and make as much of a profit as you’re able. There’s not much academic oversight and even less fiscal oversight.
The result is charter schools that perform all over the lot – some better than their public counterparts and many that do not.
Looking for a place to find waste, fraud and abuse? The charter movement may be the biggest source of waste and abuse in state government today. Notice, I didn’t say “fraud” because the charters do what is required of them. We’re just not calling them to account the way that we should.
Charters do provide parents – at least in some parts of the state – with choices. The fair question to ask is it worth the cost?
Maybe it’s an issue that requires its own blue ribbon panel but at least if could be addressed in a general way by the ways and means panel proposed above.