Thursday, January 26, 2017
Cartwright: State Prison Closures Are Sympton of Broken System
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.