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United Way of Lancaster County


Forum: Formidable education, housing issues factoring into Pa. budget deliberations

Four legislators — from left, state Sen. Scott Martin, state Rep. Jordan Harris, House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler and state Rep. Mike Sturla — offered their thoughts on the 2024-25 Pennsylvania budget at the Lancaster Chamber’s “Wake Up to the Issues” forum at the S. Dale High Leadership Center in East Lampeter Township on Thursday, June 13, 2024. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

A forum on the 2024-25 state budget Thursday morning veered into a wide-ranging discussion of public policy issues, including affordable housing, transportation, healthcare and Pennsylvania’s long-term economic prospects.

Held at the S. Dale High Leadership Center, the Lancaster Chamber’s “Wake Up to the Issues” session featured state Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee; Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, chair of the House Appropriations Committee; House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler; and state Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, who chairs the Housing & Community Development Committee.

In theory, the state budget deadline is June 30; in practice, it often takes far longer. Last year, it was not until December that legislators finally passed the 2023-24 budget’s associated “fiscal code” bills and Gov. Josh Shapiro signed them into law.

This year, Gov. Shapiro has proposed a $48.3 billion spending plan, up 7% over 2023-24. It would spend down about $3 billion of the state’s $14 billion in reserves and provide major increases for social services and economic development. To address the state’s inequities in basic education funding, which the Commonwealth Court determined were unconstitutional, it proposes $1.1 billion in additional spending, in line with the recommendations made by a bipartisan commission that Sturla co-chaired.

State Sen. Scott Martin

With regard to budget negotiations, “I think we’re at a much different starting point that we were a year ago,” Martin said. Republican priorities, he said, include regulatory reform, continuing to lower the corporate net income tax rate, and keeping the Rainy Day Fund healthy. (It stands at about $6 billion, after having dwindled to almost nothing by the end of the Corbett administration.)

Pennsylvania’s demographics are concerning, he said: Its elderly population is growing rapidly, while many young people are leaving the state. The state has employment gaps in numerous high-demand fields, including nursing, education, law enforcement and the trades, and should be working to get young people into those fields and encouraging them to stay in Pennsylvania and build their lives here. (That’s the impetus behind a package of incentive programs for higher-education students that the state Senate passed this week.)

House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler

Harris and Cutler enthusiastically agreed on the importance of better workforce development. Cutler also concurred with a statement by Harris that a budget is a moral document — not merely dollars and cents, but a set of priorities.

Cutler criticized the state for paying Medicaid reimbursement rates that are far lower than the cost of the services provided; and for using accounting tricks such as payment delays to mask the true cost even further. “We have to actually pay those bills,” he said — There’s already a rural healthcare crisis, and more hospitals will close unless the state steps up.

Sturla said housing and education are part of the state’s economic development challenge: People need affordable places to live that are reasonably close to where they work, or they won’t take the job; nor will they relocate if it’s going to cost tens of thousands of dollars to place their children in daycare.

State Rep. Mike Sturla

Pennsylvania needs roughly 235,000 more housing units than it has, he said; a gap that’s far too big for state government to fix through subsidies. Reforms to the laws around manufactured houses (aka mobile homes) could help, he said: Locating neighborhoods of manufactured homes near jobs so people could walk to work could drastically reduce the cost of living for blue-collar families.

As for education, “money does matter,” he said. The commission he co-chaired called for raising education spending by $5.3 billion over the next few years to close the “adequacy gap” in underfunded districts: The longer the state waits, the longer it will take before children are no longer shortchanged, he said.

During a Q&A, one audience member asked how much the state can influence housing growth, given that regulation and approval is largely local. The state Planning Board is happy to draft model zoning codes for municipalities to adopt, Sturla said; and locating multifamily manufactured housing in commercial zones might be a way around the opposition that usually greets proposals for increasing density in suburbs.

Martin said it would help if transportation planners had more flexibility to direct to direct federal road funding toward growth areas. He agreed housing scarcity is a major issue, saying he’s worried that his own children won’t be able to afford to live in Lancaster County. “That’s heartbreaking,” he said.

State Rep. Jordan Harris

Another audience member suggested that expanding mass transit to help people get to work would be a better strategy than building new housing. We need both, Sturla answered. It’s not just an issue of connecting residential and business locations: Pennsylvania’s population has grown and individual households are smaller than they were when the majority of its housing stock was built. “We definitely need more housing units,” he said.

Mass transit is often treated as a purely urban issue, as a cost Pittsburgh and Philadelphia impose on the rest of the state’s taxpayers, but that’s wrong, Harris said. A better regional train system, for example, would be a tremendous benefit for Lancaster County, whether through making it less expensive to ship goods or commute to Philadelphia, or from people there to shop and visit here.

“Your goods, your wares, all of those things would be better off if you had a larger market for them,” he said, “and mass transit gets us there.”

Sen. Scott Martin, left, outlines Republican budget priorities. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)