It is no surprise that the Republican reaction to Governor Wolf’s budget proposal was the overused budget burial phrase “Dead on Arrival.” The Governor’s sweeping package to invest in the state’s future, with $1.5 billion more for public schools and continued growth in high-quality early learning programs, relies on an increase to the state’s personal income tax. These funereal comments bely the fact that without a tax increase, the state will have to sacrifice children’s needs to pass a balanced budget this June.
Absent a tax increase, the state’s $3 billion+ deficit must be cured by devastating cuts to the few areas of discretionary spending in the budget (education and early childhood topping that list), or by pretending to balance the budget with financial gimmicks that guarantee even deeper cuts to the core function of government—educating our children—in the years ahead.
The Governor’s proposal responds to a complete plateau in student performance, the fact that the state is among the bottom five in student investment, and the widest gap between spending per student between the wealthiest and poorest districts. The state’s failure to fund schools puts these low-wealth communities in a death spiral.
The D.O.A incantation is intended to stop any tax increase conversations because many lawmakers, especially Republicans, fear primary election opponents who will bludgeon them for “robbing” their constituents’ pockets to pay for some boogie man who most likely lives in Philadelphia.
Here are the facts: The state’s personal income tax was first imposed in 1971 at a rate of 2.3% of personal income. In 50 years, it has risen less than a full point, standing now at 3.07%. Pennsylvania has the lowest personal income tax of any state that has this sort of tax.
The last time it was increased was 2003 when Governor Rendell fought for its boost to meet the needs of public schools. He too faced off with a House and Senate with strong Republican majorities.
Another fact: There are 21 state legislators still in office who voted for 2003 increase, three of them were House members who have since been voted into the Senate. And not one member of either chamber lost their re-election for office as a result of the tax vote. There is no truth that voting for a tax increase for schools is fatal.
To be fair, some Democrats have rebuffed the governor. Rep. Franks Burns (D-Cambria) said, “I’ve had my arm twisted so much to raise taxes that it’s a wonder it didn’t snap off…State government must learn to live within its means. I believe that, and so do the vast majority of people I represent.” A sizable portion of the people he represents send their children to the Greater Johnstown School District, a lead plaintiff in the lawsuit seeking to redress decades of state underfunding of education.
We hate to break it to the naysayers, but they may be out of touch with their constituents. In Lancaster County, home to the Speaker of the House and the new Senate Education Chair, the LancasterOnline Editorial Board pushed back on the D.O.A mantra. “There is no greater priority than public education, and so we encourage the state senator and his fellow Republicans to summon the courage and creativity to finally make 100% fair funding a reality. And to provide significantly more funding so that school districts, trying to overcome the challenges of the pandemic, don’t have to raise property taxes on those who can least afford a greater financial burden.” That sounds a lot more like a call to action than a funereal sermon.
Voters of all political stripes have long prioritized education and have expressed their willingness to pay a little more in taxes to improve student learning. Arizona, a state not known as a liberal bastion, has over the past 15 years voted several times for different education funding ballot initiatives. Just last year, voters in the Grand Canyon state passed a personal income tax increase on the wealthy to fund education.
In 2018, Oklahoma teachers protested years of education budget cuts, but the legislature voted down a tax increase. Of the 19 Republican legislators who voted against the increase, 10 lost their seats in the next election. Republicans who campaigned in favor of the tax increase won.
“Tax increase D.O.A.” is a cliché and voters know it. We are D.A.A.O. (Determined Against All Odds) to show legislators that their future in elected office is inextricably linked to their willingness to do whatever it takes to revive our schools and deliver the best education for our kids.