Our state government plays an integral role in our lives, but for many people, the goings on of Harrisburg can feel shrouded in mystery. Government should be transparent, and the more you know about how it works, the better informed you can be to make your priorities known. We hope the resources below help.
The privatization of industries has led to infrastructure projects and prisons being operated for-profit which in turn had led to increased rates. Private prisons have an incentive to be filled to capacity and the numbers tell us that the U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration of any developed nation in the world.
Businesses and corporate interests donate money to lobbying groups that fight for their interests, not yours. Other groups, such as ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) writes model legislation which is then given to state lawmakers. While ALEC claims to be bi-partisan, most of its legislators are Republicans. Additionally, ALEC is a 501 (c)(3) organization, a tax-exempt charitable group, meaning it is barred from lobbying. However, its work IS lobbying. ALEC's legislation has aimed to increase business profits, weaken environmental protections, privatize public entities (schools/prisons/infrastructure) and promote conservative social causes. Their funding is largely derived from corporations controlled by the Koch family.
Why does this matter? When too much power is consolidated in the hands of a few, it weakens the system of checks and balances that society needs to function.
Public schools in PA are funded by three sources: the federal government, the state government and local property taxes. PA differs from other states in that the state-level funding is unusually low. Our state’s funding of schools falls below 40%, leaving only a handful of states that provide a smaller percentage of funding to local school districts than PA.
This leaves the bulk of school funding up to property taxes. Due to vast differences in affluence, funding schools with property taxes exacerbates inequality. The Philadelphia, Reading, and Allentown school districts are considered among the most financially disadvantaged in the U.S. Despite criticism, when it comes down to the facts, funding does matter. The 2017 Education Justice Report found that for low-income students, a 10% increase in per-pupil spending for all 12 years of public school is associated with 0.43 additional years of completed education, 9.5 percent higher earnings, and a 6.8% reduction in the annual incidence of adult poverty.
How have we arrived to this unequally funded situation? A large portion of the decline in state funding began in the 1970's. Since 1991 PA has had a “hold harmless” policy, meaning that the state does not use enrollment to determine funding amounts. Therefore, if a district experiences a decline in students, the funding will hold the same, however this is also true for the inverse. Districts with increasing enrollments cannot receive more than an additional 2% of funding from the state.
A further drain on our public school system has been the explosion of charter schools. Charter schools are privately run, publicly funded schools that operate without public oversight. While many charter schools are non-profits, there has been an alarming increase in for-profit charter schools.
We should ensure that school district's funding is not dependent on the ability of local districts to raise revenues via property taxes. State contributions to districts need to accurately reflect district enrollment numbers. Lastly, charter schools need to have public oversight and accountability so that the money is spent appropriately and children are being held to high standards of education.
Since 1986, roughly half of all gains in wealth are in the top 0.1 percent of households. Many programs created by the U.S. government have expressly benefited Whites and excluded African Americans and other minority groups. Examples of these practices include the National Housing Act of 1934 which explicitly refused to back loans to Black individuals and the G.I. Bill which helped White veterans attend college and purchase homes after WWII. Due to the fact that wealth is handed down, policies that were enacted decades ago, that are no longer in effect currently, are still hurting minority communities. Nationwide, current policies such as excessive bail bonds, predatory lending, and suspension of driver’s licenses for minor offenses disproportionately affect Blacks and other minorities.
In order to combat the racial wealth gap, we need to look at our current policies to ensure that they do not continue to target minority communities. Additionally, we need to examine our past policies in order to determine the damage they caused so as to create solutions moving forward. Furthermore, a task force needs to be set up in the PA House to review what needs to be done in regards to reparations for slavery. This country was built on the back of slave labor which is by definition, unpaid and inhumane. We owe it to the descendants of those who were enslaved to pay reparations and restore justice. Once we have the task force set up, and the review underway, we need to go ahead and pay reparations. It is long past time.
The rate of imprisonment in the U.S. is about 700 people incarcerated per 100,000 population. This is the highest of any country in the world. There has been extensive criminalization of non-violent drug crimes. According to the Brookings Institution, from 1993 to 2009, more people were admitted to prisons for drug crimes than violent crimes.
While incarceration is extremely expensive fiscally, it also decimates the communities the prisoners leave behind. Children with a parent in prison, who make up 2% of all children, do not do as well academically as their peers. Furthermore, having a prison record leads to difficulties in finding employment and furthers the racial wealth gap.
Additionally, the bail bond industry is driven by profit, not public safety. The bail bond industry operates on the assumption that there is an assumed correlation between the wealth of the defendant and the risk of flight. However, there is no proof of any such correlation. In fact, wealthier individuals are more likely to be able to travel and have multiple passports.
What can we do?
Americans pay the highest drug prices in the world. The price of drugs in the U.S. has risen at three times the rate of inflation between 2007 and 2018. For Americans that need high-cost medication, or multiple medications, the cost is prohibitive and one third of Americans have forgone filling prescriptions altogether because of high costs.
In Pennsylvania, in 2018, 85 percent of the individual healthcare market was controlled by a mere three companies. This is a strong indicator that the market would benefit from more oversight. The layered costs of PBMs (Pharmacy Benefit Managers), Pharmaceutical companies and pharmacies show up in insurance payments in the form of higher insurance rates and copayments.
What Solutions Have Been Proposed at the Federal Level?
What Solutions Have Been Proposed at the State Level?
The United States is the only developed country without universal paid sick leave laws. Only 12 states currently have mandated paid sick leave while another 22 states have enacted preemption laws making it illegal for cities or counties to mandate paid sick leave
Paid sick leave is a public health issue. Numerous studies have shown that paid sick leave eases pressure on emergency rooms, leads to improved preventative care for employees and their children which results in fewer prolonged illnesses and days off, and it leads to higher morale, reduced turnover and higher productivity. In Connecticut, the first state to require paid sick leave, a large random survey found that employers experienced minimal to no increase in costs and minor administrative burdens.
Currently, in PA, SB13, HB 169, and HB 998 were bills introduced by Democrats attempting to institute a state-wide paid sick leave law. All three of these bills have been put on hold indefinitely by the Republican-led Labor and Industry committees. The government considers bus drivers, farm workers, hospital janitors and others in low-paying careers to be “essential” yet these are the workers too often without the protection of paid sick leave. Universal paid sick leave is a human right and respects the basic dignity of human beings.
Climate change has very real consequences for our planet, our country, and our state. It means higher temperatures, sea level rise, increased flooding, more extreme storms, and threats to our state’s infrastructure. Warmer temperatures increase the range of black legged ticks carrying Lyme disease and mosquitos carrying West Nile Virus. Furthermore, rising temperatures and fossil-fuel combustion contribute to asthma - through air pollution and pollen - both of which increase with higher temperatures.
Sadly, PA has not been a leader on creating legislation aimed at tackling climate change. In 2019, PA came up with a sweeping plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 and 2050. The plan recommends initiatives that touch nearly every sector including transportation and agriculture. However, these suggestions have remained mostly that, suggestions. Only a small handful of the suggested policies have actually been enacted. Our legislature is not acting with sufficient urgency on these measures. Even taking into account a fall in emission in recent years, PA emissions make up 0.5 % of all carbon emitted globally.
We need to act now. According to a PA state report published in 2019, reducing emissions and following its Climate Action Plan could create 40,000 jobs and grow the state’s economy by $4 billion. Nine of the Northeast States have joined RGGI (Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative) Last year, Wolf signed an executive order directing the PA Department of Environmental Protection to join RGGI. Recently, the House passed H.B. 2025 aimed at preventing PA from joining RGGI. The bill is currently in the Senate. Wolf has stated he will veto it if it gets passed. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) found that by joining RGGI, PA would realize over $6 billion worth of health benefits over the next decade, greatly reducing the incidence of childhood asthma by more than 45,000 cases.
What We Need to Do
Climate change is not a partisan issue. It is an existential threat that we need to take seriously.