by Bryan Cutler
The first weeks of February are a time of great tradition in Pennsylvania.
Every year on Feb. 2, the eyes of the world are on Pennsylvania as the epicenter of Groundhog Day.
Whether, like myself, you turn to the Slumbering Groundhog Lodge’s Octoraro Orphie for reliable and accurate springtime prognosticating or you look Punxsutawney Phil for a dubious forecast, Groundhog Day remains a great way for all of us to find comfort in tradition, fun in guessing whether there will be an early spring, and joy in the company of friends and neighbors.
It is community-minded events like the ones in Quarryville, Punxsutawney and elsewhere that help make Pennsylvania special and serve as an annual reminder that what unites us as a community is greater than what divides us on some of the larger issues we confront.
In Harrisburg, early February is also a time of annual tradition. The first Tuesday in February is usually when the governor presents his budget address to a joint session of the Pennsylvania General Assembly and the people of Pennsylvania.
In years past, despite the COVID-19 pandemic and other challenges, the tradition has been for this address to occur in the chamber of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. This tradition has been so deeply respected that a video recording of the budget address was shown in the House chamber at the height of the pandemic.
This year, however, that deeply respected tradition will be somewhat new.
As you may have heard, there is major structural work being done in the House chamber after a water leak caused damage last winter.
The timeline of the repairs and the scope of the work has essentially shut down all legislative business for the General Assembly until mid-March, including the presentation of the governor’s budget address in the House chamber.
Currently, the budget address is scheduled to be held in the Capitol’s Main Rotunda.
Moving the budget address for this year to the Main Rotunda is a uniquely historical move that will be discussed by Harrisburg insiders for years to come. But really, that is all this move signifies: Capitol discussion that does not affect communities across the Commonwealth.
Ultimately, the location of the budget address is insignificant compared to its substance. And while the location might be changed, we cannot afford to hear more of the same.
We cannot afford another Groundhog Day – the movie – where we see a repeat of having fiscally responsible decisions of the past wasted away in unrealistic and over-idealistic policy initiatives that may make people feel better but do little to actually achieve positive change in Pennsylvania.
Early indications are that the governor will focus on more funding for basic and higher education, mass transit, and economic development.
That might sound nice, but what is already concerning is some of the rhetoric around spending down our surplus, tapping into our Rainy Day Fund and possibly raising taxes.
When recently discussing his higher education proposal, Gov. (Josh) Shapiro said the following: “Look, we have an over $10 billion surplus here in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It’s time that we invest that money in meeting the needs of Pennsylvanians.”
In discussing the need to increase spending, the leading state Senate Democrat on the issue, Sen. Lindsey Williams (D-Allegheny) put forward the following on how to provide balance: “Do you spend some of the Rainy Day Fund … there is a lot of money sitting there. We have the option of clawing back some of the money that we’ve spending on … the Educational Improvement Tax Credit and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit programs we’ve just expanded … There are also things like legalizing adult-use cannabis.”
Clearly what is at stake in this budget is the potential for grand plans to eat into the hard-earned and fiscally responsible state budgetary surpluses and reserves that protect taxpayers against having to pay more of their hard-earned money during difficult economic times.
And education funding is sure to be the source of a lot of discussions around the need to increase spending.
Contrary to some of the previous comments, we certainly should not be abandoning students stuck in schools in crisis by eliminating scholarships that help fund the ability for their families to get them to a better school, nor should we be legalizing drugs merely to fuel irresponsible spending increases at the state level.
I believe we can work to achieve transformational change in our education system while being supportive of public schools, as we have in every single fiscal year for the last decade. I am for curriculum transparency, I am for school choice and I am for creating a child-first, family-focused educational experience. I believe we can and should think outside the box, try innovative solutions, and hear from students and families about how they believe children can best be educated.
I was encouraged that the budget we recently passed did not raise taxes, did not increase the size and scope of state government, and maintained our reserve accounts so taxpayers are not on the hook for the consequences of economic change. In fact, we saved an additional $900 million to protect taxpayers in the event of an economic decline.
After all is said and done with this year’s budget address, our caucus will work with anyone who wants to work with us for a continuation of those fiscally-sound principles that respect taxpayers and prepare us well for the future.
State Rep. Bryan Cutler represents the 100th District comprising parts of Lancaster County. He currently serves as the Republican Leader in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.