A Christmas Wish List for Pennsylvania

Note: This op-ed was published in the York Dispatch, the York Daily Record, and the Pocono Record.

“No more lives torn apart, and wars would never start, and time would heal all hearts.”

You might recognize those words from the ubiquitous-around-the-holidays song, “Grown-Up Christmas List.”

Grown up? Sure. Likely to happen? Not on this planet. That’s why most “grown up” Christmas lists include things like time with family and friends, great schools for our kids, and the chance to build a better future. Unfortunately, policies from Harrisburg often discourage, rather than support, these goals.

Here is a Christmas wish list that can come true and would make Pennsylvania a place where everyone can thrive.

Encourage Job Growth

Topping the wish list is a balanced budget with no tax increases. Pennsylvania’s high state and local tax burden (15 out of 50) roadblocks higher wages, economic opportunities, and an overall better quality of life for Pennsylvanians. Asking taxpayers to send more money to Harrisburg isn’t the answer.

Pennsylvanians may have received an early Christmas gift in the Wolf Administration’s recent pledge to control or reduce state spending before asking yet again for tax increases. Now, Wolf and lawmakers must fulfill this promise by ending government subsidies to large corporations and embracing the following reforms. 

Fix Broken Systems

A broken pension system is partly to blame for continually rising taxes in Pennsylvania. A recent Commonwealth Foundation report shows the state’s unfunded pension liability has ballooned 730 percent since 2006, spiking from $7.6 billion to more than $63 billion. Another year of inaction is not an option. It’s time to bring stability to state retirement plans by getting politics out of pensions and placing new state employees in a 401(k)-style retirement plan. The private sector made this move years ago, and a statewide poll from October showed 54 percent of voters want government to do the same.

Give Children the Best Education

Every child deserves an excellent education. What better way to make this goal a reality than to empower parents with educational choice? Charter schools are changing lives across the commonwealth. In Philadelphia alone, charters, on average, outperform district schools on state metrics, and wait lists for charters can number in the thousands. Lawmakers should pave the way for high-quality charters to expand into new neighborhoods. It’s also time to end donation limits on the state’s highly popular scholarship programs, which help low- and middle-income families send their children to private schools. Since 2001, more than 440,000 such scholarships have been awarded to Pennsylvania students, but thousands more students could benefit.

And if Pennsylvania truly wants to lead the way in educational opportunity, lawmakers should enact education savings accounts which lets parents completely customize their child’s educational experience.

Shine Light on Government Spending

The governor and school boards regularly negotiate taxpayer-funded contracts with public sector unions, but in most cases, taxpayers never see the terms until after the fact. As a result, Pennsylvanians are hit with higher property and other taxes to fund contracts they never had the chance to review.

Legislation proposed last year would require that proposed labor contracts be posted online before they’re finalized—a reform long overdue.

Lift People from Poverty

People want to work, but our welfare system isolates enrollees while encouraging dependence. Instead of slashing assistance at the first sign of progress, Pennsylvania must restore the dignity of work. Work requirements have already helped thousands rise from poverty. In Kansas, almost 13,000 people were freed from welfare when food stamp enrollment dropped by 75 percent after strengthened work requirements. Best of all, incomes for those who returned to work rose by an average of 127 percent per year.

Pennsylvania has already made progress on this front. In 2015, the state adjusted childcare subsidies to help parents gradually transition to self-sufficiency, rather than cutting off all assistance at the first signs of independence. Lawmakers can build on this progress and make Pennsylvania a state that puts people on a path to prosperity.

In 2017, lawmakers and Gov. Wolf can increase opportunity for all Pennsylvanians, give children access to an exceptional education, and help thousands regain independence. What better way to make “grown up” Christmas wishes come true.

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Elizabeth Stelle is director of policy analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation (CommonwealthFoundation.org), Pennsylvania’s free market think tank.