By Rep. Ryan Mackenzie (R-Lehigh/Berks)
On Feb. 7, Gov. Tom Wolf unveiled his 2017-18 state budget proposal, which kicked off the start of the annual process to determine the Commonwealth’s spending plan. Since the governor was first elected into office, he has been calling for increased taxes and spending that Pennsylvania’s working men and women simply don’t want and can’t support.
This year, it seems the governor has finally gotten the message and has instead dropped his call for additional broad-based taxes in exchange for finding ways to lower government costs. He is proposing the merger of the departments of Human Services, Health, Aging, and Drug and Alcohol Programs into one single department to be known as the Department of Health and Human Services. Another merger would be the Department of Corrections and the Board of Probation and Parole into a renamed Department of Criminal Justice.
These mergers are an intriguing idea that I look forward to exploring further. By combining these entities, we could potentially eliminate redundancies, reduce administrative overhead costs and better manage expenditures.
The governor has also proposed a slight increase to education in the areas of basic education, PreK Counts, special education and Head Start assistance. The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education would also receive an increase to help further provide a high-quality, affordable education to students.
Among highlights he revealed during his budget address, I think there are definitely areas where we can find common ground from which to work. This is a refreshing 180 degree difference from where we started in regard to his last two budget addresses.
Although there are areas of his plan that hold merit, there are also parts that give me great concern.
One area in particular is the overall growth of the state budget. Although the governor is touting that he is proposing savings of roughly $2 billion, the total dollar figure of his proposed state budget is almost $600 million more than the current fiscal year. This amounts to an increase in spending beyond our means. I would ideally like to see the state budget stay within the rate of population and inflation growth.
The governor is also proposing some new ways in which to reduce state spending and capture additional revenue; however, he is basing much of his revenue on unreliable variables that could very well fail to meet his projections. An example of this would be an additional tax on the natural gas industry, on top of the existing impact fee and other state taxes already paid. Low natural gas prices and the slowing of new activity are already creating pressure on this industry. An additional tax would be very detrimental to the jobs in this field and might not generate much revenue. Additionally, he is betting on expanded gaming legislation to bring in $150 million, even though gaming has proven to be very unpredictable in terms of generating revenue.
Last, but not least, the governor is only able to keep state spending at $32.34 billion by slashing funding for some of our most important areas of the budget, such as agriculture. Agriculture is the one of our state’s most significant industries and one of our largest job and revenue producers, yet he is proposing to cut the Department of Agriculture’s funding by nearly 24 percent. He is also looking to reduce funding for areas such as the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and the Pennsylvania State Police. To cut these important areas of the budget in his plan is misleading, because he knows that some of this funding will need to be restored in the final budget.
Again, I look forward to examining the governor’s full budget proposal in further detail and working with the administration and my colleagues in the General Assembly to formulate the best plan possible to propel Pennsylvania forward. His proposal is only the first step in a long journey to a final product.
Representative Ryan Mackenzie
Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Media Contact: Tricia Lehman