Pennsylvania State Budget
On June 30, the legislature passed a $31.6 billion General Fund Budget. Gov. Wolf allowed this budget to become law without his signature on July 12. On July 13, the House and Senate passed a revenue package to pay for the spending plan. Here is what you need to know about the budget.
Yesterday, Gov. Wolf and lawmakers approved a tax and revenue package of more than $1.3 billion. There’s just one problem: The budget remains unbalanced by $300 million.
Hoping to balance the unconstitutional, unbalanced state budget that Gov. Wolf allowed to become law Monday night, the state House and Senate today voted to hit Pennsylvanians with an array of taxes that will make listening to iTunes, reading eBooks, or watching Netflix more expensive.
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Chris Hughes has owned Fat Cat Vapor Shop for almost three years. The shop—tucked away in a small Lycoming County borough—specializes in electronic cigarettes (e-cigs), which many people seek as a healthier alternative to traditional smoking.
Chris understood the needs of people looking for an alternative to cigarettes. Instead of waiting for someone else to meet those needs, Chris took a risk and opened his own vape shop in December of 2013. “I didn’t go into business for myself," Chris said. "I went into business to help people.”
His capacity to help others is now in jeopardy.
Earlier this month, the state legislature passed a 40 percent excise tax on Chris’s vape shop and others like it. Worse, the tax is retroactive. Not only is the 40 percent tax imposed on products Chris buys, but he must also pay the tax on existing inventory.
According to Chris’s estimates, the new law would require him to make a tax payment of up to $40,000. “I just can’t afford that. This tax is forcing me to close my business.” Lawmakers included the new tax on e-cigs as part of a $650 million tax increase package to balance the state’s budget.
The new e-cigs tax raises $13 million, which accounts for just 2 percent of the overall tax package. But to Chris, the tax is an enormous burden on his business—one he won’t be able to recover from. Chris isn’t the only one upset at the prospect of closing. “I’ve had customers come in crying because of the news that I’m shutting my doors. This is wrong. This is just unfair.”
Chris attempted to work with the legislature to pass a less punitive tax but to no avail. His pleas to avoid a life-altering tax fell on deaf ears. Chris plans to close his shop in September if lawmakers don’t repeal the tax. “I’m going to continue to fight, but I can’t help but feel let down by my government.”
Fortunately, there’s still time to make things right. Lawmakers should come back to Harrisburg and repeal the excise tax. Any revenue lost could be offset by cutting spending from the $800 million of corporate welfare in the state budget.
Reducing special subsidies to save the livelihood of small business owners like Chris is a practical and moral solution to an unacceptable problem. It’s also a cause worthy of lawmakers’ attention—and one they must pursue before time runs out.
Corporate welfare projects and celebratory press releases go together like peanut butter and jelly. For the most recent example in Pennsylvania, see the latest from the governor’s communications office:
Governor Tom Wolf announced today that Amazon will expand its presence in Pennsylvania and has committed to the creation of at least 5,000 new, full-time jobs statewide.
Wait for the kicker:
The company received a funding proposal from the Department of Community and Economic Development that includes a $5 million Pennsylvania First Program grant, $15 million in Job Creation Tax Credits to be distributed upon creation of the new jobs, and $2.25 million in WEDnetPA funding for employee training.
These stories, sadly, are commonplace in the commonwealth—the nation’s leader in corporate welfare. Rather than leveling the playing field for all businesses, Pennsylvania government picks winners and losers with a hodge-podge of grants, loans, and tax credits—often only available to well-connected firms with influential lobbyists.
Sure, 5,000 (promised) jobs will be terrific for Pennsylvanians lucky enough to land one. But what about the entrepreneurs competing with Amazon who won’t benefit from taxpayer-funded perks? Don’t hold your breath waiting for a follow-up press release.
See this CF Policy Brief for more on the costs of corporate welfare.
Relatedly, Amazon’s founder and CEO Jeff Bezos net worth was recently pegged at $65 billion. Whether they like it or not, Pennsylvania taxpayers are helping Bezos climb higher on the list of the richest people on Earth.
Bill Gates better not get comfortable at the top.
The 2016-17 budget is in the books with a $650 million tax increase. That's a significant increase—but it could pale in comparison to future tax hikes if pension reform continues to fall by the wayside.
Meanwhile, there's a notion gaining traction that we don't need pension reform because our public pension crisis is at a climax. After all, the yearly spikes in pension contributions will moderate beginning in fiscal year 2018.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Recent reports from the state's two pension systems (PSERS & SERS) show the crisis is far from over. In April, SERS reported an approximately $350 million jump in the system's unfunded liability, swelling to $18.79 billion in 2015. But according to their actuary, the unfunded liability is closer to $19.45 billion—a roughly $1 billion jump.
SERS assumes a 7.5 percent rate of return for investments, but the actual rate of return was only 0.4 percent in 2015. This year isn't looking any better. SERS reported a 0.7 percent investment return for the first quarter of 2016.
In June, PSERS reduced their assumed rate of return from 7.5 percent to 7.25 percent starting in fiscal year 2017. These changes will add to the unfunded liability by about $2 billion.
In the past 3 months alone, we've added at least $3 billion to the already enormous $63 billion pension liability. Now imagine the impact of a recession or another reduction in assumed investment returns.
It's clear our pension system's liabilities are still growing at a rapid pace with no protection for taxpayers. The only way to truly end the pension crisis is to change the fundamental structure of these plans from the antiquated defined benefit plan to a modern defined contribution plan.
Like the budget, small adjustments may ease tensions in the short-term, but systematic reforms are required to change our future. Right now all signs point to higher taxes for Pennsylvanians.
Chris Hughes has owned Fat Cat Vapor Shop for almost three years. The shop—tucked away in a small Lycoming County borough—specializes in electronic cigarettes (e-cigs), which many people seek as a healthier alternative to traditional smoking. Chris understood the needs of people looking ...