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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Cartwright: State Prison Closures Are Sympton of Broken System

Blogger's Note: The following op-ed comes from Congressman Matt Cartwright. He represents the 17th Congressional District, which includes all of Schuylkill County and portions of Carbon, Northampton, Luzerne, Lackawanna, and Monroe Counties. He is a member of the Committee on Appropriations – and the Commerce, Justice, Science and Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittees – in the House of Representatives.

The beginning of each new year usually brings a sense of optimism for a year better than the last, but, unfortunately for many Pennsylvanians, Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary John Wetzel announced troubling news in early January. The DOC plans to close two state prisons from a list of five under consideration.

Three of the five possibilities are in the northeastern part of the state. These proposed closures are projected to save the Commonwealth money, but, at the same time, the closures would significantly impact thousands of Pennsylvanians who work in the prison system as well as the economies of the surrounding communities. These prison closures are a symptom of a greater problem in the Commonwealth: the Republican-controlled state legislature will not work with Governor Wolf on any real solutions to our long-term state budget challenges.

The inability of the legislature to agree on and pass a responsible budget is mostly the result of a stubborn, short-sighted, and cut-mentality ideological agenda on the Republican side, especially in the Senate. Everyone should understand that Governor Wolf inherited a severely strained state budget with a multi-billion dollar deficit when he took office in 2015. The Corbett administration cut the taxes on larger corporations that were bringing in millions of dollars in vital revenue. Once accounting for over 30% of general funds available each year, corporate taxes today now represent only 17% of total Pennsylvania revenue.

When Republicans consistently side with corporate CEOs on taxes, middle-class Pennsylvanians feel the strain of cuts to vital programs, services, and institutions, like state correctional facilities. State house Republicans were also responsible for the stopgap budget proposal in 2015-16 that preserved current state tax rates but did not fully fund the fiscal year. It fell short, leaving the executive branch scrambling to account for an unfunded twelfth month.

Governor Wolf promised to raise enough state revenues to adequately fund education, social services, and prisons, and he set out to do it. However, he received pushback at every turn from an uncooperative state legislature. This forced the governor to resort to program and job cuts in a desperate attempt to balance the books.

As the governor has been preaching since day one of his administration, with budgeting, there are one-time, short-term fixes and there are sustainable solutions. The two are different. Republican representatives and senators will only raise revenue under extremely limited circumstances, yet they are willing to cut vital programs and institutions for the most vulnerable members of our communities. And even though their legislative use of budgeting gimmicks – such as interdepartmental transfers – and limited alternative revenue sources – such as increased tax rates on gaming – may have temporarily postponed fiscal disaster, this approach has only contributed to the growing budget deficit problem the Commonwealth faces today.

Moves to address a systemic inadequacy with only superficial fixes by past administrations and the Republican-controlled General Assembly are what have brought us to where we find ourselves today. Two state prisons are slated to be the tangible casualty of the lack of any responsible commitment to fix a broken system.

The economic negatives of this situation are very real. Thousands of people from my congressional district work at the three northeastern prisons proposed for closure. This is their livelihood, and many prison suppliers feel just as threatened. Our state legislature’s refusal to take the long view and work with the governor in a bipartisan way is going to have a significant impact on corrections workers, their families, and local businesses.

And closing two prisons will not put an end Pennsylvania’s ongoing fiscal crisis. The proposed closures themselves will not change short-sightedness and more pain to come on state budgeting. Only cooperation can change that, and it’s time we had some in Harrisburg.


John said...

Thank you, Representative Cartwright, for contributing this sensible piece for us to see. I believe it speaks volumes that you chose Bernie's blog as the place of publication. And thank you, Bernie, for making the space available. You are doing critical work that no other media outlet in the area will step up to do. Please keep it up.

Bernie O'Hare said...

John, I think Cartwright sent it to many news outlets, certainly not just me.

Anonymous said...

Raising the PIT is the fairest solution. PA doesn't tax pensions so it doesn't hurt seniors

Jeff Fox said...

Mr. Cartwright raises some good points. Mr. Cartwright does not mention that Governor Wolf can also be quite partisan and he needs to understand that like it or not, the legislature, with an even larger "Republican" majority than before, is that way because that is the "will of the people" of a large swath of Pennsylvania. "We the People" want to see fiscal responsibility in their elected officials, at all levels. I understand Mr. Cartwright wanting to protect the jobs/people within his district. "Cutting the fat", and there IS fat, must also be mentioned. As well as things such as pension reform, prevailing wage reform, etc.. There is plenty of blame to go around. Instead of pointing fingers, we should be about working together for good government(is that an oxymoron?)for all. No matter what is done, someone, some group(s), interest(s) will feel pain. If we're serious about it.

Bernie O'Hare said...

I agree completely that Wolf has been just as partisan as top Rs.

george schaller said...

There is many issues that are faceing the state, lets just look at our area of of state officials> Like the now infamous Trey Gowdy quoted, " There are many Americans pouring genaric cereal as some of you's are sitting down to a 40sompin dollar breakfast," this is because it is not comming out of there own pocket, but will be billed on a expense account??
This is not a D or R thing it is an exceptable thing to some and maybe to others it is a entitlement issue. The main issue here is were do we go and how do we get there without the threat and in some cases need to make cuts to the most needed of institutions and care systems?
Like one particular area that is a pet pev of mine, we will need to find some very good accountants, that there job description will have a new title too! It will be called "forensic antropology accountants"! Dealing with such fictisiusly faked dollar ammounts put to print one changed numeric digit could be and has been the cause of many a demise to a community accross this great nation we all inhabit!
I hope that is posibly ledgable enough for understanding and praying for opinions to make a come back to arenas diolog without left or right fermented blue bug juice shitstew as has been served up to the public far too long!
I haven't seen the infamous shitfly on faces of destination lately?
REpublican redd
humanist by design

Anonymous said...

Didn't Jim Greggory state the broken system in a LTE months ago?

Bernie O'Hare said...

Like most excons, he thinks the system is broken. And like most excons,he is a bit short in the credibility department.

Anonymous said...

The broken penal system is one of many important issues that will be addressed by the Unity-PAC when it is reborn.