Public education advocates hail Wolf’s school budget; Republicans balk at tax proposal

TribLIVE’s Daily and Weekly email newsletters deliver the news you want and information you need, right to your inbox. Public education advocates applauded the proposed 21{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} boost to K-12 funding in Gov. Tom Wolf’s 2021-22 budget Wednesday calling it bold and overdue, even as members of the Republican-controlled Legislature savaged […]

Public education advocates applauded the proposed 21{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} boost to K-12 funding in Gov. Tom Wolf’s 2021-22 budget Wednesday calling it bold and overdue, even as members of the Republican-controlled Legislature savaged it.

“It is long overdue and very, very necessary,” said Ron Cowell, the former Allegheny County lawmaker and founder of the Pennsylvania Education Policy Center. “If enacted by the Legislature it wouldn’t solve all of Pennsylvania’s K-12 funding problems, but it will make significant progress in terms of increasing the state share of funding and closing the gap between the have and have not districts.”

“I would think most people affiliated with public education would be pleased, certainly there is a need for a more fair and equitable funding,” said retired Norwin School District Superintendent Bill Kerr. “But realistically, there is going to be great debate between the governor and the Republican-controlled Legislature.”

Education has become a hot topic across the country as governors weigh in with new budget plans. Many are wish lists or jumping off points that lawmakers will pare down or accept in the coming months.

Cowell, who chaired the House Education Committee for 12 years before retiring from the Legislature, said Wolf’s proposed boost to state funding for education could help shift some of the burden of education from local property owners as it provides a method of leveling some of the inequities between rich and poor districts.

“Across the country, about 30{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of K-12 money comes from property taxes. In Pennsylvania, it’s closer to 45{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1},” he said. “… In many cases, the infusion of state dollars would make it possible for school districts to consider property tax reductions.”

Wolf wants to underwrite his proposal by increasing the personal income tax from 3.09{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} to 4.49{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1}.

The plan would shift the burden to higher income earners by exemptions that would reduce the tax rate among about 40{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of taxpayers at lower income levels. He framed it as a way of shifting taxes from young families just starting out to those who have accumulated some resources.

Republicans swiftly oppose plan

Republicans immediately signaled their opposition to the plan. They said it is unfair to small business owners and would not pass the state’s constitutional requirement for uniform taxes.

“The pandemic hit Main Street. More than anyone else they had to deal with the governor’s draconian shutdowns and now he wants to put more burden on them the largest tax increase in Pennsylvania history,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre County. “… Amazon and the big box stores do not care about increases to the personal income tax or the minimum wage.

“The mom-and-pop stores will bear the brunt of this proposal,” Corman said. “Small employers and middle-class families are what drive economic recoveries. Governor Wolf has put yet another target on their backs.”

A group of Republican leaders said if the Biden Administration’s covid rescue plan is approved, any increase in state funding would amount to a “double dip” for education.

Moreover, Corman said he wants to focus on school choice rather than boosting funding. He predicted the two sides will come together, noting that the Republican Legislature has worked with the Democratic governor to balance the budget for the last six years.

CMU economist weighs in

Carnegie Mellon University economist Robert Strauss said Wolf’s proposal strikes him as the starting point for what could become a very contentious conversation in the coming months as lawmakers try to deal with the aftermath of the pandemic financial downturn and growing pressure for action in urban schools in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

“We’re at a turning point in this country with regard to public education and whether we’re going to go back to what it was before the pandemic,” Strauss said.

Cowell said Wolf’s proposal offers something better.

“The opportunity is great. The willingness is the huge question mark,” Cowell said. “ Any legislator who represents Westmoreland County needs to be aware of the disparities in their own back yard. It exists in Allegheny County, too, not just from county to county, but within counties.”

Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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