What We (Didn’t) Learn From The 2024 Budget Hearings

By Rep. Seth Grove

“If I were planning to do a get-out-of-business sale, this is the kind of budget I would do: I would empty my reserves, sell my assets, and get out of town.” This is how I concluded my questions with Budget Secretary Uri Monson, the last testifier to appear before the Appropriations Committee after three long and often frustrating weeks of budget hearings.

Throughout the budget hearings, each agency leader deflected to the Budget Office questions about their own agency’s financial management. Appropriations Committee Members were shocked at the lack of details provided to implement the countless new and expanded spending programs and the new revenue enhancements proposed by the Governor from agency leaders.

After his budget address, Governor Shapiro told the press, “Analysis can’t be used as an excuse for paralysis.” While true, analysis cannot be an excuse for paralysis, but what will lead to paralysis is a lack of detail. The examples of agencies with no details were numerous.

For example, Shapiro’s budget calls for the Department of Agriculture to implement and administer adult-use cannabis, yet during their hearing, Secretary Russell Redding had no details of the Governor’s plan, let alone draft legislation. Just as concerning, the Departments of Health, Drug and Alcohol Programs, and even the State Police haven’t seen the adult-use cannabis plan either. Another example was the Department of Community and Economic Development, who will be responsible for implementing the $500 million PA SITES program, yet Sec. Rick Siger had no details of that plan.

Even worse, not only did some agencies show just how unprepared they are to implement the new programs proposed by the Governor, but clearly demonstrated they are failing to perform even their basic Government functions. The most egregious example was the Department of Aging.

During their budget hearing, Department of Aging Secretary Jason Kavulich could provide no details on the new $11.7 million appropriation titled “Aging Our Way, PA.” It was also revealed that the department still has a staggering number of unresolved reports of abuse or neglect of seniors. Investigating potential abuse of seniors is a core function of the Department of Aging. How can you take on more responsibilities when you can’t do the basics?

In a category all its own was education.

During the community colleges budget hearing, it was uncovered that there had been a grand total of TWO meetings on the Governor’s so-called “Blueprint for Higher Education,” which includes community colleges and PASSHE schools. The interim president of the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges received the “blueprint” marketing document at the same time the public did. PASSHE Chancellor Dan Greenstein had not been involved in any discussions before his budget hearing.

Further, the “blueprint” will cost Pennsylvania taxpayers at least $1 million in consulting fees, a significant chunk of which will go to Department of Education Deputy Secretary Kate Shaw’s former employer.

As for Department of Education Secretary Khalid Mumin, he seemed entirely in the dark on the “Blueprint for Higher Education,” just as he was completely unacquainted with the Basic Education Funding Commission (BEFC) report. Unable to answer even basic questions about the proposal, he left Deputy Secretary Carrie Rowe and Budget Director Jessica Sites to clarify the details. Director Sites eventually confirmed that the Democrat Basic Education Funding Commission report adopted by the BEFC calls for a $291 million increase in school property taxes.

Armed with many questions, House Republicans finally had a chance to ask Sec. Monson for the budget details that agency leaders were unequipped to provide as well as the overall direction of Commonwealth finances. Sec. Monson tried to convince the Appropriations Committee that the Governor’s FY 2024-25 budget proposal is fiscally responsible, conservative, and sustainable. However, House Republicans remained skeptical that the Governor’s significant spending would become more conservative the longer he remained in office, as the Budget Secretary claimed.

Sec. Monson also followed the trend of other agency leaders and said details on major budget initiatives would be forthcoming. According to the Secretary’s timeline, the legislature should receive all required legislation at the end of March or early April. This leaves just three months to review these large proposals and meet the June 30th budget deadline (assuming this legislation is introduced posthaste) that Sec. Monson said it is crucial to meet.

If the budget is late this year, we will undoubtedly look back on the lack of planning from the Shapiro Administration as a leading cause. We could also conclude it’s all a part of the four-year “get-out-of-business and into the White House” plan. Either way, it is terrible news for Pennsylvanians.

Seth Grove represents PA’s 196th Legislative District in York County. He is Chairman of the House Republican Appropriations Committee and has a master’s degree in Public Financial Management from the University of Kentucky.

Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy.

This appeared on Broad + Liberty on April 8, 2024.