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Lawmakers must weigh positives and negatives of Wolf’s budget plan
Governor Wolf recently outlined his spending priorities and tax proposals as part of the 2017-18 budget address to the General Assembly. Although this speech is only the first step in a long process of study and negotiation, I appreciate the fact that the governor gave us a starting point that includes no increases in broad-based taxes – a serious sticking point with lawmakers and the public in the previous two budgets.
The governor’s spending plan includes a number of positives. Compared to the last two years, there is definitely a stronger focus on savings and efficiency. The Personal Income Tax and Sales Tax rates remain unchanged. The overall increase in spending is less than two percent. These are concepts that both Republicans and Democrats can support, and they provide a solid foundation for us to begin the budget process.
Unfortunately, there are also some serious negatives that need to be weighed. Lawmakers and the governor must grapple with a deficit of approximately $3 billion this year. This deficit results primarily from the unchecked growth of some of the state’s most expensive line items, including escalating public employee pension costs and growth in Medicaid spending. Also, much of the budget deficit is plugged through one-time revenues and the sale of state assets, rather than addressing the costs that continue to rise year after year.
If we fail to address the major cost-drivers in the budget, we are almost certain to end up in the same position next year, or worse -- a huge deficit, fewer assets available to sell, and greater financial challenges to overcome. Achieving a balanced, responsible and sustainable budget requires us to make tough choices regarding pensions and Medicaid. We need to rethink how these services are structured and delivered in order to reach a compromise that is fair both to taxpayers and the people who rely on these programs and services.
We faced similar challenges when I served as a Lancaster County Commissioner, and we tackled those problems with an eye toward promoting both short-term and long-term savings to the taxpayer, including a stronger focus on how we can deliver services more efficiently and effectively. I am hopeful that we can work with Governor Wolf to achieve similar results at the state level.
Over the next several weeks, the Senate Appropriations Committee will hold a series of public hearings with members of the Wolf Administration to dig deeper into the budget and ask questions about individual programs and line items. The hearings will be available at www.pasenategop.com.
Senator Ryan Aument and I shared our thoughts regarding the governor’s spending plan in a joint news release last week. Our thoughts are available here.
Senate approves measures addressing sanctuary cities, paycheck protection, and dismemberment abortion
In addition to studying the governor’s budget address, the Senate considered a number of consequential bills last week addressing several important issues. I appreciated the chance to support final passage of these measures and explained my reasoning for supporting some of these bills during debate on the Senate Floor.
Senate Bill 10 addresses the problem of sanctuary cities – municipalities that refuse to honor detainer requests from federal officials who want to deport illegal immigrants who are arrested for committing other crimes. Although our area is made richer and more vibrant due to our diversity from legal immigration, we gain nothing by releasing dangerous criminals back onto the streets, especially when they are already breaking the law by being here illegally. We’ve seen troubling cases across the country, including here in Pennsylvania, in which municipalities have released career criminals back onto the streets instead of turning them over to federal authorities, resulting in subsequent violent crimes that could have been prevented. After a lengthy debate on the floor, the bill was approved with bipartisan support.
In addition, the Senate passed Senate Bill 166, legislation to prevent the collection of political campaign funds through taxpayer-funded sources. The bill does not prevent any government employee from financially supporting organizations that engage in political activity, nor does it dictate how that money is spent; it only prevents the portion of union deductions used for political purposes from being collected through the use of government resources. This practice is a clear breach of ethics. Video of my floor remarks on the bill is available here.
The Senate also approved Senate Bill 3, a measure that prohibits the barbaric practice of dismemberment abortion. In addition, the bill shortened the time period in which an abortion can take place from 24 weeks to 20 weeks. Debate on the measure included a number of deeply personal stories, and I appreciate the fact that so much of the conversation focused on supporting one another, even when we might disagree. Video of my comments on the bill is available here.
Personal Income Tax Filing Deadline Extended to April 18
The deadline for Pennsylvanians to file 2016 state income tax returns has been extended until April 18, 2017. The Department of Revenue offers a number of convenient filing options and other tools to assist taxpayers, including filing assistance through the department’s Online Customer Service Center or by calling 717-787-8201 between 7:30 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.
More information is available on the PA Department of Revenue's website at www.revenue.pa.gov.
For more information on issues of importance to southwestern Pennsylvania, please visit my website at senatorscottmartinpa.com.