Education Money Driving State Budget Debate
Local legislators react to the state budget proposal and negotiations.
State legislators have spent the past month discussing Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget proposal and Democrats are continuing to question his priorities while Republicans are considering restoring some funding to higher education.
As expected, education funding is the hottest topic after Corbett proposed cutting more than $500 million from basic education for local school districts and slashing state-fund higher education in half. Corbett has said the cuts are essential to balancing his $27.3 billion budget.
The state legislators who represent people living in the Chartiers Valley area all agree that education funding is driving the current budget negotiations.
State Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, said reducing spending is understandable, but the governor’s priorities are misguided.
He thinks many poorer school districts will be forced to raise taxes or consolidate to survive. Meanwhile, Fontana questioned why Corbett has been adamant that the drilling industry should not be taxed for extracting natural gas from Marcellus Shale.
“It’s a cost to lower- middle-class folks who are going to take a hit,” Fontana said. “It seems to me this governor is favoring big business over residents. And that’s disturbing.”
State Rep. Nick Kotik, D-Robinson, said the budget proposal is already having a ripple effect on some of his schools districts. Last month, Carlynton contacted three neighboring districts about merging, prompting Kotik to question where students will go if more schools are forced to close.
“Some of my poorer districts will go bankrupt. There’s no way getting around that,” Kotik said. “They’re going to have to figure out what to do with all those kids.”
However, Kotik said he has heard rumblings from his Republican counterparts about boosting some of the proposed cuts to higher education funding. Republicans control both chambers of the General Assembly and are driving the budget debate.
State Rep. Mark Mustio, R-Moon, acknowledged that the legislature probably will increase funding to higher education, but not to previous levels.
“Education is the most critical area that needs to be looked at,” Mustio said. “It’s clear there was a lot of sentiment to help the state universities.”
He and state Sen. John Pippy, R-Moon, plan to visit some of their local school districts to discuss concerns about the budget cuts. Mustio thinks some regulatory paperwork can be streamlined to save on costs and manpower.
Pippy did not return multiple phone calls seeking comment on the budget.
Matt Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon, said he has received extensive feedback from constituents who are puzzled by the budget proposal. Smith called the cuts “extreme” and accused the governor of “taking the easy way out” of difficult decisions.
“I think everyone recognizes that we have to cut, but I could not disagree more with the governor’s approach,” Smith said. “Rather than cutting strategically with a scalpel, he went in with a chainsaw in the one area we need to fund.”
According to the state constitution, the budget must be passed by June 30.