Solutions across ideological lines are closer than we think

Gov. Tom Wolf is shown delivering his budget address for the 2016-17 fiscal year. (AP Photo/Chris Knight

Gov. Tom Wolf is shown delivering his budget address for the 2016-17 fiscal year. (AP Photo/Chris Knight

Ask any Pennsylvanian what he or she wants in life, and the answers will probably be remarkably similar: a great job, freedom to make choices, the best opportunities for their kids, and overall happiness.

Yet, the debates over what politics will deliver these outcomes are marred by partisan rhetoric and politics that trump all substance. In our state capitol, for example, name-calling and finger-pointing are standard practice, each side labeling the other “extremists.”

Drowned out by all this noise is serious discussion of the policies that will make Pennsylvania a better place to live and work. Contrary to what partisan rhetoric suggests, Pennsylvanians agree on many of these policies — from education and state spending to pension and liquor reform.

Overwhelmingly, Pennsylvanians recognize the need to address our massive, and still growing, pension debt. Over the past decade, our unfunded pension liability jumped from $7.6 billion to $63 billion, a 700 percent increase. This triggered an unprecedented rise in property taxes and teacher layoffs, even as state aid to school districts rose to record levels.

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A majority of voters, including half of Democrats and 58 percent of Republicans, support fixing the broken pension system by offering 401k-style plans to all new state employees. This would protect taxpayers from rising debt, prevent politically motivated underfunding, and provide better options for younger workers who are more likely to change jobs during their careers.

Likewise, Pennsylvanians agree children should have the best education possible. Nationwide, school choice programs have improved student learning, saved money, and reduced segregation, according to a recent summary of research from Ed Choice. Not surprisingly, school choice in Pennsylvania enjoys public support that transcends party lines.

Pennsylvania is home to one of the most successful programs, the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program, and its newer cousin, the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit. Both programs provide tax credits to businesses that contribute to scholarship organizations. These organizations, in turn, offer 50,000 students scholarships to a better or safer school.

School choice is particularly valued in urban centers like Philadelphia, where traditional public schools have too often failed their communities. Though charter and private schools provide compelling alternatives for many, tens of thousands of families remain on waiting lists, hoping for a chance at a brighter future.

When it comes to wine and liquor, consumers across party lines want choice, convenience, and competitive pricing. In fact, more than 60 percent of Pennsylvania voters, including majorities among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, want to eliminate the state- owned and operated liquor stores — the primary roadblock to the convenience consumers crave.

And in the ever-present discussion of state government spending, almost two-thirds of voters, including more than 60 percent of Democrats, believe state spending growth should be limited to the rate of inflation and population growth. Such spending limits would allow the budget to increase every year, but with responsible guidelines for sustainable rates of growth in both good economic times and bad. Over the last 45 years, adjusting for inflation, state government spending increased by $13,800 per family of four.

This overspending has resulted in persistent budget deficits and multiple tax increases, including a $650 million tax increase this year, which will hit working families and small businesses.

Given such wide agreement on commonsense reforms, why haven’t we made more progress towards these reforms?

For years, government union leaders — who profit from maintaining the status quo — have actively fought against every single reform mentioned above. They have lobbied against school choice, advocated for higher taxes and spending, spent millions to oppose consumer choice in liquor, and even denied the existence of a pension crisis.

These union leaders contributed $10.5 million to state candidates last election cycle — from campaign contributions collected at taxpayer expense.

That is why two-thirds of Pennsylvania voters — again spanning party lines — support paycheck protection. This would end the use of public resources to collect campaign contributions for union leaders, putting government unions on a level political playing field.

Commonsense, politically popular solutions are closer than we think. Embracing them will create a better place for all Pennsylvanians to live, work, and raise a family.

Nathan A. Benefield is vice president of policy for the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank. He has researched and written on issues including taxes, government spending, education reform, transportation funding, health care policy, and economic development. His work has been featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Patriot News, and Allentown Morning Call, amongst others.  He also frequently provides testimony to the Pennsylvania House and Senate.

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