Op-Ed: Now is the time to rebuild Pennsylvania

Versions were published in RealClear Politics and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

In recent weeks, Gov. Tom Wolf called on state legislators to enact parts of his political agenda—including legalizing recreational marijuana and mandating small businesses provide workers with paid leave benefits. Such proposals exhibit Wolf’s disconnect from what Pennsylvanians care most about during this crisis: schools, jobs, and health care.

Wolf, moreover, hasn’t called lawmakers to discuss his ideas or to hear their proposals. In fact, at a recent press conference, the governor couldn’t remember the last time that he spoke with legislative leaders. According to Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, the governor hasn’t communicated directly with GOP leadership since July. 

Wolf’s failure to communicate even with our state’s other elected leaders reflects his administration’s ongoing transparency issues. It also illustrates his inability to gauge what resonates with Pennsylvanians. 

Legislators should respond to Wolf by enacting policies that support Pennsylvania’s economic recovery. Now is the time to rebuild the state by helping students recover lost education time, ensuring the health care system’s crisis preparedness, and reviving small businesses. 

Indeed, lawmakers should counter Wolf’s proposals with legislation that creates jobs, helps students, and saves the tens of thousands of small, local businesses facing the possibility of closure. After all, nearly 14 percent of Pennsylvanians are unemployed—one of the highest rates in the nation. Legalizing pot won’t help those unemployed people. Forcing struggling small businesses to pay higher wages and benefits will only dry up jobs, not create them. 

Consider the pandemic-era challenges of Pennsylvania’s education system. From cities to rural townships, families have navigated the uncertain—and at times chaotic—reopening of schools. Even before the Covid-19 crisis, though, parents and children struggled with school districts. They’re now looking for new options. 

A proposed law would give families those necessary education alternatives. Sponsored by Rep. Clint Owlett and Sen. Judy Ward, “Back on Track” legislation would create educational scholarship accounts—worth $1,000—to help low-income families afford unanticipated academic needs, including tutoring, tuition, and online materials. 

In addition to improving educational opportunities, lawmakers should ensure Pennsylvania’s health care system is always prepared, no matter the crisis. Unfortunately, this spring, Wolf vetoed Senate Bill 857, which would have made access to telemedicine easier. Through his veto, Wolf failed to account for the countless patients who have suffered during the pandemic because they couldn’t access care. Take the story of April Hynes, a breast cancer patient who sought telehealth consultation in New York. Hynes was denied help until she received an emergency state waiver. In the future, such experiences should never happen. 

To strengthen Pennsylvania’s quality of care, lawmakers should expand access to telemedicine, and also make permanent the temporary health regulatory suspensions enacted during the crisis. Reducing barriers on nurse practitioners and pharmacists, for example, would increase access to care while reducing costs. 

Pennsylvania’s Covid-era challenges, however, aren’t limited to schools and hospitals. Just ask the countless small business owners struggling to survive. Lawmakers should throw them a lifeline. For instance, tax reform that permits small businesses to deduct their losses in 2020 from future taxes—something larger corporations already do—would help ensure their long-term viability. Then, lawmakers should ensure that the small businesses that endure this crisis don’t confront excessive regulatory red tape on the road to recovery. A package of reforms—already in progress—that eases those barriers for entrepreneurs and encourages the rehiring of workers should be passed.

Small business owners trying to get back on their feet shouldn’t have to worry about frivolous Covid-related lawsuits either. Several states, for example, have passed laws offering legal protection to employers, schools, and health care providers that follow guidelines to keep their operations safe. Pennsylvania should do the same to protect small business owners against excessive lawsuits

By passing these ambitious, though necessary, reforms to help Pennsylvania rebuild its economy, lawmakers can start bridging the gap between what the people need and what government is focused on. For now, Wolf is giving GOP leaders the silent treatment, but this shouldn’t stop the legislature from supporting families, students, patients, and small business owners.