Memo to PA House regarding Fiscal and Education Code bills passed by the PA Senate

Date: Monday, December 14, 2015

To: Members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives

From: Marc Stier, Director, The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center

RE: Concerns about provisions of the Fiscal Code and Education Code bills passed by the Senate of Pennsylvania

In a democracy, public policy is ideally made after extensive public deliberation and debate. Deals made in private and announced at the last minute make it impossible for citizens to understand and evaluate the actions of their legislators or for advocates to mobilize citizen opinion on the critical issues of the day.

Unfortunately, the last few days have given us two striking examples of the failure to live up to this fundamental democratic norm.

The Senate has passed a Fiscal Code bill, HB 1327 – a necessary part of the Pennsylvania budget – that includes provisions on the environment that are objectionable in three ways. They would give the General Assembly power to delay the development of a Pennsylvania climate plan to reduce power plant emissions. When the danger of climate change is ever more evident, this a step backward. The provisions in the fiscal code would prohibit the Environmental Quality Board from adopting new, and much needed, oil and gas drilling regulations, which are necessary to protect our air and water and also to reduce greenhouse gases. And they would give the natural gas drillers, who should be paying a severance tax, a $12 million hand out from taxpayers.

Meanwhile, the Senate passed an Education Code bill, HB 530 – another necessary part of the budget – that includes provisions requiring the State Department of Education to transfer five underperforming schools in Philadelphia to the Department of Education. The Department would be required to convert or authorize a new charter in two of the schools. And it would require the Department to operate two others.

When the Philadelphia School District is already under the control of a School Reform Commission controlled by the state, it is hard to understand why this provision is necessary. Nor, given the record of charter schools and direct state intervention around the country, is there any reason to think that this policy is likely to improve schools in Philadelphia. And this policy will create added chaos and fiscal stress for a school system that already suffers from chronic underfunding, underfunding that is only partly relieved by the budget passed by the Senate.

We've seen this kind of last-minute, closed-door, public policy making too often in Pennsylvania. And far too often it leads, as in these two cases, to fiscally irresponsible public policies that serve special interests rather than the common good.

We urge the House of Representatives to strip these provisions from the Fiscal Code and Education Code before finishing work on the budget. And we urge the Senate to concur in these changes.