Northampton Press

Thursday, September 20, 2018
Gov. Tom Wolf Gov. Tom Wolf

Bipartisan budget bolsters economy, workforce through education, skills training

Tuesday, July 3, 2018 by Debbie Galbraith dgalbraith@tnonline.com in Local News

In a news release June 22, Gov. Tom Wolf outlined the major components of the 2018-19 budget that will build upon the critical investments made in education and workforce development and take a major step toward restoring the state’s fiscal health, including the first real transfer to the state’s rainy day fund in years.

“Throughout my term, I have fought hard for Pennsylvanians and moved the commonwealth forward by investing in workforce training to help all Pennsylvanians succeed in our economy, increasing education funding to give our students the education they deserve and expanding options for Pennsylvanians to have access to quality, affordable health care,” Wolf said. “This year’s bipartisan budget continues to increase opportunities for all Pennsylvanians and shows the results of our hard work to get our finances under control.”

Investments in education, transportation, senior programs, environmental protection and health care programs are included in the budget. Wolf also said Pennsylvania has saved $2 billion by streamlining government to better serve Pennsylvanians.

Wolf said the budget builds on prior-year increases to provide an additional $313.5 million to improve education opportunities for every student across the state, regardless of ZIP code and to “further ensure we have a workforce ready for the 21st century.” Among other investments, the budget accomplishes the following:

• Provides an increase of $189.6 million for students in prekindergarten through grade 12, including $25 million for prekindergarten/Head Start, $100 million for basic education funding and $10 million for career and technical education

• Increases funding for higher education, including additional investments in Pennsylvania’s community colleges, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and the state-related universities

• Invests more than $61.4 million for school and community safety, including a $1.4 million increase for the Safe Schools Initiative

• Maintains $1 million in grant funding for “It’s on Us PA” to address campus sexual violence

• Launches the governor’s PAsmart initiative to align workforce development efforts across commonwealth agencies to more efficiently deliver services for all Pennsylvanians, which will prioritize $30 million for investments in computer science and STEM education programs and expand apprenticeship and industry partnerships

Wolf said he has taken a massive structural deficit and turned it into a surplus, putting money in the rainy day fund for the first time since 2006. Other cost savings include:

• Reduced the commonwealth staff complement by over 1,700 positions to the lowest level in more than 40 years, reversing a trend of complement increases in prior years without the use of furloughs

• Identified more than 300 projects generating nearly $400 million in cumulative budget savings

• Medicaid expansion, which has provided health care to more than 720,000 people, while saving the commonwealth more than $700 million annually

• The corrections population has declined from 50,904 to 48,341. This net reduction of nearly 2,600 individuals has allowed the commonwealth to reduce its footprint and reverse years of spending growth. SCI Pittsburgh, one of the commonwealth’s oldest and most functionally inefficient facilities, closed in 2017.

• Fully funded the contributions for the School Employees Retirement System and Pennsylvania State Employees Retirement System. “While funding levels will remain high for many years until the unfunded liability has been fully repaid, annual increases in these payments have been significantly reduced by pension reform,” Wolf said.

• Consolidation of agencies, including merging human resources and information technology services for all executive agencies, merging the Department of Corrections and the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole and consolidating administration functions across all four human service agencies.

Wolf said the budget continues the work of the past three years by making further investments in programs supporting women and families and increases services for individuals with intellectual disabilities and autism.

Among other investments, Wolf said the budget accomplishes the following:

• Increases funding for child care services by $6.8 million, paired with $50 million in federal funding. The $6.8 million will serve another 1,100 on the child care waiting list. The $50 million in federal dollars allows the state to adjust the base rate of pay for child care providers, ensuring fair wages for all four “STARS” levels of care after a lengthy wage freeze on levels 1 and 2. This enables not only fair wages, but increases the possibility of hiring highly qualified employees.

• Increases funding by $5.3 million for community-based family centers, which includes $4.5 million to provide home-visiting services for families affected by opioid use disorder and $800,000 in increased rates for home-visiting providers

• Provides $1.2 million to increase rates for the nurse-family partnership program

• Provides additional investments to assist individuals with intellectual disabilities and autism, including $16 million for an additional 965 individuals with intellectual disabilities or autism to access waivers to provide supports and services, so they can remain in their home and community. Of those 965, there are 800 June 2019 graduates who, for the first time, will be able to receive waivers for services upon graduation rather than wait until September as had been the practice. This relieves significant worry for parents who previously needed to find care for their children in the gap between June and September.

• Provides $2.5 million for Lyme disease awareness, prevention and surveillance

• Provides $2.35 million to process additional birth certificate requests and reduce processing times

The budget increases funding for public safety and allows for increased protections for Pennsylvania’s natural resources and agriculture industry. Among other investments, the budget accomplishes the following:

• Provides $6 million for the Pennsylvania State Police pilot program to purchase body-worn cameras

• Provides $43 million for the communication and infrastructure purchases to continue the modernization of Pennsylvania’s Statewide Radio System and comply with federal requirements

• Invests additional funding to train three State Police Cadet classes

• Provides an additional $2.5 million to enable the Department of Environmental Protection to fill 35 mission critical positions throughout the agency, which will increase responsive oversight and improve customer service

• Includes $3 million in new funding to increase Spotted Lanternfly detection, control and eradication efforts to protect Pennsylvania business and agriculture

Local lawmakers quickly reacted to the state budget.

“In addition to holding the line on taxes, keeping spending below inflation and contributing to the state’s rainy day fund, I am pleased that this spending plan boosts support for economic development, job training and education,” state Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-18th, said. “From pre-K through college, this budget reflects the need to educate our children and prepare them to enter the workforce. This budget also makes critical investments in technical training to help fill glaring vacancies for jobs in the building trades and manufacturers across Pennsylvania. These investments recognize that a traditional college education is not the only pathway to a sustainable future. This budget will help sustain, expand and stoke Pennsylvania businesses, which will generate family-sustaining jobs and create even more career opportunities.”

“This budget puts more dollars into our education system in order to prepare today’s youth for tomorrow’s jobs, “ state Rep. Ryan Mackenzie, R-134th, said. “Contained in the budget is increased funding for basic education, special education, early childhood education, higher education, workforce development programs and school safety initiatives. One of the highlights of the budget is the ability to direct money into the state’s savings account in order to help protect Pennsylvanians from tax increases during future times of need. This is the first time we have been in a position to add to the rainy day fund in over a decade.”