By State Senator Daylin Leach
We passed the budget Thursday, two days before our constitutionally mandated deadline. All budgets are a mixed bag. We spend too much on some things, not enough on others, while other line items are just right. Each negotiation results in some victories, some defeats and some battles left for another day. This is my seventeenth budget, and I’ve developed a good sense of what a budget needs to contain to earn my “YES” vote. Unfortunately, this budget simply does not make the grade.
This is not a terrible budget. There are some good things in it, including a modest increase in education funding as well as more money for important domestic violence programs. Those are victories. However, we’ve also seen some major defeats. A top priority of mine and many other democrats was an increase in the minimum wage.
It’s been more than a decade since our last minimum wage increase. We’re the only Northeastern state where the minimum wage still languishes at $7.25/hour, significantly below the poverty level. And the minimum wage for those who earn tips, such as restaurant servers and airport baggage handlers, is $2.83/hour and hasn’t increased in over a quarter of a century. Even Republican leaders talked about how it was time for an increase. But at the end of the day, the minimum wage did not go up one penny. And that’s a disgrace.
Then there’s the issue of cash assistance to the poorest Pennsylvanians. Those on the very bottom rung of the economic ladder currently receive $200/month in cash assistance. This is a paltry amount which has not increased for decades. Nonetheless it can make the difference between having shelter or being homeless, and it can mean that at least some of the basics of life are attainable to people who have so little. We’re eliminating that. At a time when someone earning one million dollars per year is receiving $70,000 per year in federal tax cuts, we’re reducing to zero the number of dollars we provide to those barely surviving. When I was a younger, we were on public assistance in Pennsylvania. I know how critically important every dime of that assistance is to a struggling family, and how gratuitously cruel it is to end it.
Further, the budget neglects important environmental initiatives and raids already under-resourced environmental funds. It doesn’t do what’s necessary to ensure that we have a fair and accurate census next year, and it contains no increase in pay for teachers in the poorest school districts despite near universal acknowledgement that the pay disparity makes it very difficult to recruit teachers in disadvantaged areas. These shortcomings are enough to convince me that this is not a budget I can support.
The budget is the one bill each year that absolutely must pass. Government shuts down on June 30th at midnight if a budget isn’t signed into law by then. This fact has historically meant that other major initiatives are part of the negotiations. People stand up and say, “If this important priority is not included, I’m not voting for, or I am not signing this budget.” It may lead to a short-term impasse, but the reward oftentimes leads to long-term progress. My first year serving in the House, we didn’t pass a completed budget until December. But Governor Rendell got a better deal than he would have had he not fought.
In recent years we’ve been too anxious to simply get the budget done just for the sake of being done, and this is unfortunate. We’re facing huge problems in a whole host of areas. We have a student-loan crisis. I have a bill that would solve it, but I’m not the only one. There are a lot of good ideas out there, but we never consider any of them. The same is true with critical environmental bills, anti-discrimination legislation, ending prohibition, etc. We’ve lost our ambition to solve big problems. Worst of all, we have become addicted to a failing status quo.
I have voted for imperfect budgets before. But those budgets were constrained by big deficits. This year, we had a large surplus in revenue. Plus, it’s not an election year for anyone involved in the process, so if there was ever a year to do big things, this was it. So, I could not in good conscience vote for inaction in the face of overwhelming need. Hopefully, next year will show us a different collective will.
This op-ed was originally published by PennLive on June 28, 2019.
Senator Daylin Leach represents the 17th Senatorial District, which includes parts of Montgomery County and Delaware County. For more information visit www.senatorleach.com/newsroom.