Harrisburg’s New Year’s Resolutions Should Include These Reforms

Spend more time with family, live a healthier lifestyle, learn a new skill. These New Year’s resolutions pop up year after year. Although they are worthwhile goals, by some statistics fewer than 10 percent of people actually achieve their New Year aims.

It turns out wishing for something doesn’t make it happen. Meaningful change requires work and commitment.  

As Pennsylvanians dive into 2017, the resolutions will be as varied as those who make them. But when state lawmakers return to Harrisburg in January, these goals should top their New Year’s list.

Encouraging Job Growth

Pennsylvanians want more economic opportunity, higher wages, and an overall better quality of life for themselves and their families. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania’s 15th-highest state and local tax burden blocks these wishes. Asking taxpayers to send more money to Harrisburg isn’t the answer. Instead, a balanced budget with no tax increases must be a priority.

Like any goal, this won’t happen without changing habits. This includes ending government subsidies to large corporations and embracing key reforms outlined below. 

Fixing Broken Systems

A broken pension system is largely to blame for continually rising taxes in Pennsylvania. A recent Commonwealth Foundation report showed the state’s unfunded pension liability has ballooned 730 percent since 2006, spiking from $7.6 billion to more than $63 billion. Another year of inaction is not an option. It’s time to get politics out of pensions by placing new state employees in a 401(k)-style retirement plan. The private sector made this move years ago, and a statewide poll from October showed 54 percent of voters want government to do the same. While the unfunded liability will still need to be paid, this is a critical first step toward sustainability and protecting taxpayers and state workers.

Giving Children the Best Education

Every child deserves an excellent education. There’s no better way to make this goal reality than to empower parents with educational choice. Charter schools are changing lives across the commonwealth. In Philadelphia alone, charters, on average, outperform district schools on state metrics, and wait lists for charters can number in the thousands. Lawmakers should pave the way for high-quality charters to expand into new neighborhoods. It’s also time to end donation limits on the state’s highly popular scholarship programs, which help low- and middle-income families send their children to private schools. Since 2001, more than 440,000 such scholarships have been awarded to Pennsylvania students, but thousands more students could benefit.

And if Pennsylvania truly wants to lead the way in educational opportunity, lawmakers should enact education savings accounts (www.commonwealthfoundation.org/esa), which lets parents completely customize their child’s educational experience.

Shining Light on Government Spending

The governor and school boards regularly negotiate taxpayer-funded contracts with public sector unions, but in most cases, taxpayers never see the terms until after the fact. As a result, Pennsylvanians are hit with higher property and other taxes to fund contracts they never had the chance to review.

Legislation proposed last year would require that proposed labor contracts be posted online before they’re finalized. Such contract transparency is a sure way to better serve Pennsylvanians in the new year.

Lifting People from Poverty

People want to work, but our welfare system isolates enrollees while encouraging dependence. Instead of slashing assistance at the first sign of progress, Pennsylvania must restore the dignity of work. Work requirements have helped thousands rise from poverty. In Kansas, almost 13,000 people were freed from welfare when food stamp enrollment dropped by 75 percent after strengthened work requirements. Best of all, incomes for those who returned to work rose by an average of 127 percent per year.

Pennsylvania has already made progress on this front. In 2015, the state adjusted childcare subsidies to help parents gradually transition to self-sufficiency, rather than cutting off all assistance at the first signs of independence. Lawmakers can build on this progress and make Pennsylvania a state that puts people on a path to prosperity.

The new year is all about setting goals and reaching for new horizons. In 2017, lawmakers and Gov. Wolf can increase opportunity for all Pennsylvanians, give children access to an exceptional education, and help thousands regain self-sufficiency and independence. Those are resolutions worth keeping.

Elizabeth Stelle is director of policy analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation (CommonwealthFoundation.org), Pennsylvania’s free market think tank.