These are relatively peaceful times in Harrisburg, as the state budget for the current fiscal year was in place with days to spare before the July 1 deadline. In fact, the unusual times in which we live are reflected in several line items that make up the 2018-19 spending plan.
The consistency of threats to our public school campuses has resulted in a new, $60 million initiative to ensure Pennsylvania’s children are learning in a safe environment. The funding will be delivered in the form of a block grant to allow schools the choice of how they wish to put it to work. It will also come from a restricted account, so they may use it for safety-related items such as school resource officers, metal detectors, school safety assessments and preplanning, and other facility upgrades. Any school that applies will be accepted and receive at least $25,000.
The 2018-19 budget also addresses the need for anonymity when it comes to reporting possible threats.
State officials are working to have in place a system that will allow students, teachers and community residents to anonymously report any unsafe, potentially harmful, dangerous, violent or criminal activities in schools. A new Safe2Say
program will be accessible by phone, computer or a smartphone app. Administered by the Office of Attorney General, the Safe2Say system will be staffed by trained professionals who can appropriately respond to the situation and provide the reporter peace of mind that their concern will be addressed. It mirrors Colorado’s Safe2Tell program, which was created in 2004 and has handled more than 30,000 reports.
When many of us were kids, school days were often interrupted by fire drills. In 2018, intruder drills are not as prevalent but are becoming a way of life. As part of the budget, security drills will be held annually in each school. All school employees will undergo mandatory training on school safety and security, and the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency will formulate a uniform approach to evaluating current security measures in every Pennsylvania school building.
When it comes to discussing those measures, public school entities, such as school boards, will be permitted to go into private, executive session for school safety discussions. This will allow free discussion and development of security plans that address the needs of schools without disclosing plans to would-be attackers.
Schools are not the only object of new budget strategies. Pennsylvania has been labeled “the bull’s eye for Lyme disease.” The 2018-19 budget directs $2.5 million for Lyme disease, which includes building a more robust prevention and education program, conducting more well-rounded surveillance through activities like a statewide environmental survey, and improving participation in tick-borne disease surveillance with providers and local health departments. Additional health measures (which are NOT new to the budget) include continued support of the state’s West Nile Virus and Zika Virus control programs.
The health and safety of our agriculture is also considered in the budget. York Countians may not be familiar with the spotted lanternfly, but we probably soon will. The Department of Agriculture budget includes a new $2.5 million appropriation for this invasive insect, which has the potential to impact apple, grape and other fruit crops, as well as hops and the logging industry. It was discovered in Berks County and is believed to be migrating in our direction.
One might also consider the financial “safety” of Pennsylvanians when evaluating the 2018-19 budget. It includes no new taxes or fees following years of numerous attempts to further tap the taxpayer. That also means no Marcellus Shale severance tax, which inevitably gets passed on to consumers of both natural gas and electricity.
There is a lot to like in the 2018-19 budget. It keeps spending within the rate of inflation while sufficiently supporting the core functions of government and not asking more from Pennsylvania taxpayers. For the first time, statewide PreK-12 funding eclipses the $12 billion figure.
Three years ago, Pennsylvania’s fiscal picture looked gloomy and our revenue numbers were deep “in the red.” Thanks to responsible fiscal policy and holding the line on attempts to raise taxes, we are now “in the black,” and operating under a spending plan that uses the new surplus to re-establish Pennsylvania’s Rainy Day Fund for the first time in more than a decade.
Our economic woes are not cured, but our ship appears to be turning in the right direction. Let’s hope safe waters continue to lie ahead.
Representative Keith Gillespie
Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Media Contact: Scott Little