Wolf’s Policies Send Pennsylvanians Packing

Note: This commentary was published in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Bucks County Courier Times, Centre Daily Times, and other news outlets.

Picture ten people in a room. After 12 minutes, one walks out. Twelve minutes later, a second person leaves. After just two hours, the room is empty.

That’s how quickly Pennsylvanians are exiting the state to seek better opportunities elsewhere.

Last year alone, we lost one person to another state every 12.5 minutes—a net migration of 41,600 residents, gone. That’s nearly the entire population of York, Governor Tom Wolf’s hometown.

Ironically, Wolf used his second budget address to double down on the policies that are driving people away.

Each year since 2011, Pennsylvania saw more people move out than move in. The commonwealth joined the unenviable company of high-tax states like New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and California as states of exodus.

These are parents, children, recent college graduates, working families, and bright minds ready to contribute to a prosperous society, but forced to look elsewhere for opportunity.

Where are families moving? To states like North Carolina, Florida, and Delaware—where state and local tax burdens are significantly lower.

States with the largest migration losses over the past five years—including Pennsylvania—had a higher average state and local tax burden (10.93 percent) than those with the greatest gains (8.84 percent).

The lesson is simple: People vote with their feet. Out of control spending and burdensome taxes change a state’s future. To many, America’s Keystone State is looking more like an exit door, and Wolf’s policies will push it ever wider.

Wolf’s latest budget calls for a tax hike of $850 per family of four—that’s on top of the existing state and local tax burden of more than $18,000 per family. In all, Wolf demanded an astonishing $3.6 billion in new taxes, including an 11 percent retroactive personal income tax increase.

That’s right, if Wolf gets his way, you’ll owe higher taxes on money you’ve already earned.

Why? To fund his record $80 billion in total spending—or $14,000 per Pennsylvania worker.

Will taxpayers swallow retroactive tax increases to fund billions in new spending even as Wolf’s first budget remains in limbo? He might as well have rented a U-Haul and pointed Pennsylvanians to the nearest interstate.

When state residents leave, more than population numbers suffer. Families take with them hundreds of millions of dollars in income and wealth, along with professional skills, ingenuity, and creativity—a “brain drain” threatens Pennsylvania’s future.

From 1992-2014, Pennsylvania lost $11.6 billion in adjusted gross income because of domestic outmigration. That represents more than $350 million annually in lost state income tax revenue.

Meanwhile, the state’s population already ranks among the nation’s oldest. By 2030, the 60-plus population is expected to reach 29 percent—or 4 million.

This trend means a higher demand for government services. At the same time, Wolf’s policies will drive out the very taxpayers who fund these programs.

The population shift also carries national implications. Over the past eight decades, Pennsylvania’s representation in Congress has been nearly cut in half as we’ve repeatedly lost congressional seats—dropping from 36 to 18—and electoral votes.

Our state is losing its national prominence, some of its best and brightest workers, and its attractiveness for families. We must work to reverse this trend.

Instead, the governor has chosen to repeat history rather than learn from it. His tax-and-spend agenda will accelerate Pennsylvanians’ exodus to other states.

There is an alternative. Restoring Pennsylvania to “keystone” status remains an achievable goal. But it will require Wolf and policymakers to reduce the tax burden on working people, families, and job creators to create an environment that rewards—not punishes—productivity.

If we resolve to change course, we’ll find that the highway out of Pennsylvania allows U-turns.

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Nathan A. Benefield is vice president of policy analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free market think tank.