By David Loomis
INDIANA — The nation’s largest full-time state legislature checked out of Harrisburg last week for a summer-long vacation after passing a $34 billion budget just in time for the new fiscal year, an achievement for the lawmakers. Gov. Tom Wolf signed the budget bill into law, despite misgivings.
One misgiving concerned a provision to eliminate funds to help the neediest Pennsylvanians.
The $50 million a year “general assistance” program had provided up to $205 per month for basic necessities – toothpaste, meds and bus fare, according to one analysis — for about 11,000 Pennsylvanians who are disabled, who survive domestic violence, who are treated for addiction, who have no family support and who receive no other public assistance.
Unsurprisingly, last month’s legislative votes to kill the program followed partisan lines in Harrisburg, where the legislative branch is in Republican hands and the executive is in Democratic. Indiana County’s representatives ran true to a pledge of unity: State Reps. Jim Struzzi, R-Indiana; Cris Dush, R-Brookville; Jeff Pyle, R-Ford City, and state Sen. Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, all voted to cut the general-assistance program from the budget. (Indiana County records 52 general-assistance recipients.)
Opponents won the day when the governor last week signed the bill into law, minus funding for the general-assistance program. Gov. Wolf pledged to find ways around the partisan parsimony.
The annual spending plan for fiscal year 2020 – a year marked by revenue surplus — includes money for the legislators’ annual salaries. That’s $87,180 per head, plus $183 a day for expenses. Multiplied by its 253 members, spending for lawmakers’ salaries alone totals about $22 million.
But that doesn’t include the six-figure salaries paid to legislative leaders, and it doesn’t include per-diem expenses. Nor does it include such perks as automatic cost-of-living increases, job security (98 percent of incumbents typically get re-elected), access to lifetime health care at retirement, a staff that has reached around 3,000, and so on.
THE DEBATE over Pennsylvania’s general-assistance program is unlikely to fade away fast. Viral video of Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, bellowing to drown out a reading of a plaintive letter from a general-assistance recipient, is likely to be a staple of 2020 election campaigns.
Corman’s June 26 rant was directed at Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democrat, who presided over the floor discussion’s debatable parliamentary procedure. But it was freshman state Sen. Katie Muth, D-Chester, who read the letter from cash-assistance recipient John Boyd.
As Corman bellowed, Muth persisted:
“I am alive today because General Assistance is supporting my stability and help me live independently again after being homeless for 25 years,” Sen. Muth read of what Boyd wrote. She continued for another three minutes, just about right for video virality.
ONE ISSUE THAT UNIFIES a divided nation on this Fourth of July is income inequality. The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and the facts are not debatable.
On this holiday, we celebrate a Declaration and a Constitution, both crafted in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall more than two centuries ago. The latter pledged “we the people” to “promote the general welfare.”
But in 2019, the people’s representatives in Harrisburg can’t seem to spare a dime.
The lead paragraph of this story has been changed to describe the Pennsylvania General Assembly as the nation’s largest full-time state legislature. An earlier version described it as the world’s largest full-time legislature.
David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.
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