Secretary-Treasurer JoAnne Sessa Speaks at Budget Press Conference


By Andre Dienner, Pennsylvania Legislative Services | June 26, 2017

Pennsylvania’s Choice campaign, including advocates for education, human services, environment, and service providers, held a press conference Monday in the Main Rotunda to discuss budget negotiations. Comments focused on the need for sustained funding for social, medical, and environmental programs in order to protect citizens and yield long term results.

Jeff Garis, outreach and engagement director for the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center (PBPC), outlined the role   of Pennsylvania’s Choice with support from various organizations including The Arc of Pennsylvania, Consumer Health Coalition, Education Voters of Pennsylvania, Mental Health Partnerships, SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, and more. He expressed a desire for a fair and on time budget, imploring the legislature to ensure continued investment in health and education programs. “Not merely a budget that looks like it adds up on paper,” Garis clarified, “but a budget that is truly balanced and a budget that invests in Pennsylvania’s future, that invests in our schools, in our colleges, in pre-school, in health care, in services to those in our families and our neighborhoods.” Further, he suggested this is not the current direction of budget discussions and status quo reigns supreme. “We are seeing yet another budget coming together that does not put people first, a budget that is not balanced, and a budget that does not invest in these priorities,” Garis concluded.

Marc Stier, director, PBPC, called on legislators to enact a budget that puts people first and addresses the “backlog of public investment needs.” Specifically, he advocated for funding for schools, pre-K, higher education, health waiting lists, and unemployment compensation call centers. “We’re looking for a budget that isn’t balanced with deep cuts to Medicaid, to pre-K, to environmental programs,” he added. Stier then directed his criticism towards Republican leadership for entertaining such cuts, cannibalizing the gaming market, and borrowing from tobacco settlement revenues. He specifically said they are ignoring healthier ways to balance the budget including a PBPC fair share tax proposal which would increase taxes on corporations and wealth while lowering income taxes, severance taxes, and corporate tax reform.

Dr. Jill Sunday Bartoli, Education Voters of Pennsylvania, drew on funding levels from the 1980s to demonstrate a shift in public education funding down to a 35 percent share while other states are at 50 percent. She listed a myriad of negative side effects due to this increased investment such as closed libraries, unequal funding based on property taxes, unfunded testing mandates profiting the testing industry, and cyber and charter schools with “abysmal” success records. Bartoli further maintained this results in an economically and racially segregated system stifling education and learning. “It does not have to be this way,” Bartoli responded. “We need to tell our legislators to fully fund our public schools and do it equally and fairly.”

Sen. Art Haywood (D-Montgomery) voiced support for the cause, indicating it is a pressing week. He voiced concern with the potential for cuts to social services while taking issue with a lack of willingness to address corporate tax and tax credit reform. He claimed tax credits do not help the economy or generate jobs, and posed a potential solution in lieu of increased reliance on property taxes by imposing new taxes on the wealthy through taxes on capital gains, royalties, income on wealth. Sen. Haywood opined this change paired with a reduction in income taxes would both cut taxes on the middle class and generate an additional $2 billion in revenue.

Rep. Stephen McCarter (D-Montgomery) commended PBPC for their work on new tax proposals, stating that it is a simple fix by implementing a progressive system through taxes on corporations and the wealthy through a fair share tax plan. He labeled the debate as a case of economic benefit for either the people or corporations, and called on his colleagues to enact meaningful reform.

JoAnne Sessa, secretary-treasurer, Service Employees International Union Local 668, offered an employment perspective on the budget. She indicated the issue is not with spending, offering that the General Fund spending has dropped by 10 percent since 2011, but rather a revenue problem. “The General Assembly has asked that we cut taxes on corporations over the last 15 years,” she stated. “Our upside down tax system takes far too much from low and middle income Pennsylvanians who struggle daily to provide basic needs for themselves and their families while the corporations and billionaires get richer and richer. This is wrong.” Sessa also called for a change to that system instead of balancing the budget with “gimmicks,” and thanked Gov. Wolf for his proposals for new revenue to “preserve vital services” such as addiction services, opioid crisis prevention measures, and education.

Maureen Cronin, executive director, The Arc of Pennsylvania, indicated both Gov. Wolf’s proposal and the passed House budget contained increases for mental health services. However, she emphasized the need for a continued commitment to those with intellectual disabilities as previous cuts have been damaging. “We have failed miserably to these families,” Cronin stated, adding that continued increases must prevail to ensure adequate services.

Leah Payne, childcare provider and member of Childcare Providers United, outlined the importance of professional child care which she described as “not a cheap feat.” She expressed frustration with a lack of funding for such services, and demanded a $35 million increase to allow for better pay for workers and more access for families regardless of income.

Jennifer Wolff, policy specialist, Mental Health Partnerships, described $9 million in cuts in the House budget as irresponsible, cruel, and inhumane. She emphasized the critical nature of community based health services, saying the area needs funding to get people “working and believing in themselves.” Lastly, Wolff called on legislators to put people first.

Joanne Kilgour, chapter director, Sierra Club PA Chapter, demonstrated the need to protect the planet and education individuals on the topic. “We know that the quality of natural and human environment requires deliberate, smart investment in our communities at all levels,” Kilgour offered. “In our schools, in our humans services agencies, in community and economic development, in our public lands, and of course in environmental protection.” She further emphasized the House budget would present damage to government mandates and constitutional rights, and called on the legislature to protect the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

Alicia Hamiel, Fight For $15, explained she is a married mother of two who works at a Philadelphia-area McDonald’s making $7.75 per hour. She outlined the difficulties she faces providing for her family and indicated public assistance is required to make ends meet. Hamiel then called on the legislature to raise the minimum wage and protect social programs to allow individuals to continue to pursue the American dream.

Garis concluded the press conference indicating that supporters from around the state will spend the day visiting legislator’s offices to advocate for the cause.


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