The story of public policy in Pennsylvania in 2015 began with new occupants of three of the most important positions in the Commonwealth’s political structure – Governor Tom Wolf, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, and House Majority Leader Dave Reed. They took on the leading roles in the on-again, off-again state budget drama that played out over the course of the year, beginning with the Governor’s budget address in March.
The Governor’s priorities, as stated in his budget address, were to increase education spending and put the Commonwealth on a sustainable long-term fiscal path. He proposed raising taxes to achieve these goals. The majority of the General Assembly had different priorities, beginning with reforming the pension system for state and school employees and significantly changing the way alcohol is sold in Pennsylvania. Majorities in the General Assembly also opposed any tax increases, whether through increases in sales or personal income taxes or imposing taxes on items currently not taxed, ranging from smokeless tobacco to natural gas production.
These significantly different visions immediately clashed and little progress toward compromise occurred as Pennsylvania reached its constitutionally-mandated budget deadline of June 30. At that point the General Assembly sent the Governor their version of a budget, with none of the Governor’s priorities, but also neither of the General Assembly majority’s two goals. The Governor vetoed the entire budget, which began a six-month odyssey which came to a temporary conclusion on December 29.
Months of debate and discussions, which were not always friendly, resulted in a budget “framework” agreed to by the Governor and legislative leaders. The framework had two major components - an increase in education spending and significant changes in the public pension system. The State Senate approved the compromise budget by a vote of 43-7 and the pension proposal that would require new employees to enroll in a pension system that includes a 401K style plan by a vote of 30-20. The State House then prepared to consider both bills. But then things fell apart. The first problem was the compromise budget provided a total spending number, but it did not contain the final plan to collect the funding necessary to spend that amount. By this time it appeared that an increase in either the sales tax or the personal income (but not both) would be necessary to balance the budget, but legislation with the final tax proposal to be voted upon was not made public.
The second problem was the House vote on the pension bill. House Democrats opposed the pension bill unanimously, and House Republicans who were against the compromise budget proposal because it raised taxes saw an opportunity to scuttle the entire agreement by voting against the pension legislation. The pension legislation subsequently failed by a large margin. Without a pension bill in place, House leaders refused to allow the compromise budget to be voted on. Instead, on December 23, the House decided to leave Harrisburg. The Senate, desperate to send a budget proposal to the Governor, revived the budget the Governor had vetoed earlier in the year (which the House had already passed again), approved it, and sent it to the Governor.
That set the stage for the Governor’s news conference on December 29. He announced he would approve parts of the budget, which would give public schools and service providers the funding needed to continue their operations into the 2016. But he did not approve the entire budget. As is his right under Pennsylvania law, he chose to veto approximately $6.3 billion in spending. The programs suffering this “line-item” veto include colleges and universities, public school, corrections, and human services. The Governor explained that by not approving this spending he was forcing the General Assembly to return to session to pass what he termed a “real” budget, built along the lines of the compromise budget passed by the Senate. How the General Assembly reacts will be the first story of 2016, but it really is still a 2015 tale – 2016’s narrative will actually begin when the Governor presents his 2016-17 budget at the State of the State address on February 2, just over a month from now.
The state budget dilemma was the public policy story that never ended in 2015. But there were other notable occurrences. One under-the-radar issue that you won’t find on Top 10 lists for the year but represents a significant achievement was the continuing battle to improve home and community based long-term care in Pennsylvania. Both sides in the overall budget debate have agreed on increased spending on home and community based care, in the Medicaid budget (which is for very low-income individuals) and also in the lottery budget (which helps older Pennsylvanians at higher incomes). Pennsylvania has ranked very low in its support of home and community based care compared to other states, but 2015 appears to be a year of significant growth. And this includes family caregiving; Pennsylvania is on the verge of passing the CARE Act that will allow family caregivers to be better prepared to care for their loved ones when they are discharged from a hospital. The bill awaits final Senate approval after some of the bigger state budget issues are straightened out.
Also making the headlines in 2015:
- The continuing charges and counter-charges involving Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane and parts of the judicial system.
- Three new Supreme Court justices were elected in November, with the Democratic candidates winning a clean sweep.
- Two Pennsylvania Congressmen, Mike Fitzpatrick and Joe Pitts, announced they will not run for re-election in 2016.
- Philadelphia elected a new Mayor – Jim Kenney.
- Pittsburgh joined Philadelphia as an AARP designated age-friendly city.
From a public policy perspective, 2015 was as dramatic as I’ve seen in many years. There were scandals, frustrations, and muck-raking. There were also quiet victories and progress on health care policies and community based programs. Let’s hope that 2016 will be filled with more positive outcomes for Pennsylvanians across the Commonwealth. In the truest sense of the expression, I’m wishing, for all of us, a Happy New Year!
“Ray’s Round Up” features updates on current state and federal issues by Ray Landis, AARP PA’s Advocacy Manager.