HARRISBURG – Gov. Tom Wolf unveiled a $36 billion spending plan for 2020-21 that calls for universal full-day kindergarten, a revamped strategy for cost-sharing for state police service and a $200 million scholarship program for students in the Pennsylvania System of Higher Education.
The budget approved by the General Assembly last summer called for $34 billion in spending, but the state’s spending for 2019-20 exceeded that amount by almost $600 million, largely due to increased costs for human services programs and the state prison system, according to the governor’s office.
As a result, Wolf’s proposal would increase spending by 4 percent compared to what the state is projected to spend in the current fiscal year, but it would increase spending by 6 percent compared to the amount approved by the General Assembly last year.
Republicans blasted the over-spending.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Stan Saylor, R-York County, said the spending plans of the Department of Corrections and Department of Human Services will get special scrutiny during the budget hearings later in February and March.
“Reform is needed,” Saylor said. “The path we are on is unsustainable.”
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Browne, R-Lehigh County, said the Republicans are going to push back against the Wolf administration over-spending out of concern that it will “snowball” from year-to-year if left unchecked.
The $600 million doesn’t even fully capture all of the state’s over-spending in this fiscal year, because another $300 million in human services spending from this year was rolled into the 2020-21 budget, according to the governor’s office.
The over-spending comes from the cost social services the state is required to provide, said J.J. Abbott, a spokesman for the governor.
“It’s a point-in-time estimate,” Abbott said. “We don’t know how many people are going to need services.”
The Human Services expenses this year would have been closer to the budgeted amount if lawmakers had provided as much funding as the governor had requested in his 2019 budget proposal, Abbott said.
“It’s a simple math problem,” he said.
Last year, Wolf had proposed spending $13 billion on human services, but the budget passed by the General Assembly cut that amount to $12.7 billion, according to budget documents.
For the coming year, Wolf’s proposal calls for spending more than $14.3 billion on human services programs, budget documents show.
New scholarship program
Wolf’s budget also calls for transferring $204 million from the Pennsylvania Racehorse Development Fund to launch a program to help students pay for the cost of attending colleges in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.
The Racehorse Development Fund uses a portion of the proceeds from slot-machine gambling to subsidize the horse-racing industry in Pennsylvania
“Let’s bet on our kids instead of bankrolling racehorse owners and ensure the viability of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education,” Wolf said.
Under the plan, dubbed the Nellie Bly Tuition Program, at least 25,000 students would get full scholarships to one of the 14 colleges in the state system. The scholarships would be geared toward students in low-to-middle income families, with poorer students getting higher priority, according to information provided by the governor’s office.
Students who benefit from the scholarship would be required to stay in Pennsylvania after graduation for at least one year for every year of scholarship aid they received. If a student who gets a Nellie Bly scholarship leaves the state too early, the scholarship becomes a loan that must be repaid.
The scholarship is named after Nellie Bly, the pen name of Elizabeth Sherman, who was probably the most famous female investigative journalist of the 19th century. Wolf said Bly had attended what’s now Indiana University of Pennsylvania, one of the state system colleges, but she had to drop out and leave the state to pursue her career after her father died.
“More than 100 years later, we still see too many of our young people forced to drop out of college, or forced to move away from Pennsylvania, or forced to begin their lives buried under a mountain of debt,” Wolf said. “That’s why the Nellie Bly Scholarship will pay for what other financial aid does not cover so that they can spend more time contributing to our Commonwealth and less time paying off their debts. And by incentivizing them to stay in Pennsylvania after graduation, we can all reap the benefits of their intellect and their creativity.”
Republicans expressed some skepticism of the plan.
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre County, said lawmakers will “vet” the plan to determine what impact it could have on the horse-racing industry.
State Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Cambria County, said there is nothing in the proposal to bar out-of-state students from getting the scholarships.
New state police fee plan
Wolf is also proposing a revamped strategy for sharing the cost of local police services provided by state police. The governor has repeatedly sought, unsuccessfully, to get the Legislature to approve a plan to collect a fee from communities that don’t have local police and rely on state police for protection.
Rural lawmakers have opposed that effort, arguing state police spend as much or more time helping larger communities with police departments as the agency does helping small communities without police.
The move to share the cost of state police service is fueled by concern over the amount of money for state police being taken out of the Motor License Fund, which is largely funded by the gas tax.
Under the plan unveiled Tuesday, Wolf is now proposing that all communities would be levied a fee based on the amount of state police assistance they receive. Details of the plan weren’t immediately available Tuesday morning, but information provided by the governor’s office indicated that the fee would be calculated based on the population of the municipality, income levels and the costs of each state police station. While all communities will be charged a fee, communities without local police would be charged more than they would if they had local police, according to information provided by the governor’s office.
Langerholc said he’s not sold on the idea that all communities should be asked to chip in funds to cover state police costs.
“I don’t think it’s justifiable,” he said.
Wolf’s spending plan would require any school district with half-day kindergarten sessions would have to move to full-day kindergarten.
Roughly 22,000 of the state’s 121,000 kindergarten students are now enrolled in half-day programs, according to information provided by the governor’s office.
Districts that can’t afford the cost of renovations or other changes needed to meet the requirement will be allowed to apply for a waiver to the requirement as long as they provide a plan to prepare for full-day kindergarten, according to information provided by the governor’s office.
Wolf’s budget also includes requests he’s made in previous years, such as a call for an increase in the minimum wage, and a call for a severance tax.
He’s also calling for the Legislature to tackle charter school reforms, including a move to set a statewide uniform tuition rate for cyber charter schools. Currently, cyber school tuition varies by school district. Wolf’s office estimates that his proposed charter reforms would save local school districts $280 million a year.
Wolf is also calling for the General Assembly to approve a $1 billion increase in the amount available through the Redevelopment Capital Assistance Program to help pay for school building repairs to eliminate asbestos and lead programs.
Wolf’s budget calls for enacting the new tax on drilling and using it to make the payments on $4 billion in borrowing to pay for his Restore PA initiative, funding projects like fighting blight, preventing floods or expanding rural broadband access.
But between borrowing for the RCAP program and Restore PA means that the state would be taking on an additional $5 billion in debt if Wolf’s plan is enacted, Corman said.