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The Capitol

With $10,000,000,000 to spend, advocates press Wolf, Pa. lawmakers to prioritize poor people

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Members of the Poor People's Campaign in Pennsylvania gathered on the steps of the Capitol to call for a "just and moral budget."
Shaniece Holmes Brown

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HARRISBURG — As Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-led legislature begin the final month of budget negotiations, a coalition of groups that serve the underrepresented marched to the steps of the Capitol to demand lawmakers prioritize working-class and low-income families.

Under the banner of the Poor People’s Campaign, more than 50 protesters laid out their vision for a “just and moral Pennsylvania budget.” Among their demands: restoring programs for the poorest Pennsylvanians including a cash benefit for adults called General Assistance, expanding the state’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, and hiring additional unemployment staffers to manage the crush of claims.

“What we are saying is that the budget needs to reflect the needs of over five million people in Pennsylvania that are poor or near-poor,” Nijmie Dzurinko, co-chair of the Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign, said. “It’s not about left or right. It’s about right and wrong.”

In theory, budget negotiations should be less complex this year. Despite fears of lingering financial distress due to the pandemic, the state is projecting $3 billion in tax collections over what it had initially expected. And Pennsylvania can bank on another $7.3 billion in federal dollars from the coronavirus rescue plan signed earlier this year by President Joe Biden.

But figuring out how to spend that stimulus money, and where to prioritize sending excess dollars, has the potential to turn into a nasty political fight and prolong negotiations past the June 30 deadline.

Gov. Tom Wolf is finishing the last two years of his second term — a lame-duck status that would make it difficult for any governor to push through policies. Wolf, however, has had a rocky history with Republicans who control both legislative chambers, including major disagreements in the last year over his handling of the pandemic. And 2022 will mark the start of a contentious battle between Democrats and Republicans for who will succeed Wolf, a political reality that could force more partisan tones and grandstanding on this year’s negotiations.

The Democratic governor appears to be relaxing his push to restructure the state’s personal income tax, a key piece of his budget proposal this year that had raised the ire of the GOP. But he is not backing away from his plan to infuse an additional $1 billion into public education, which Republicans have not endorsed.

Since the first cases of the coronavirus were diagnosed in Pennsylvania last year, roughly six million jobless claims have been filed in the state. At the same time, advocates believe thousands of households are vulnerable to eviction while nearly a million customers were behind on their utility bills as of January.

Democrats in the state House and Senate want to seize on the moment — and the more than $7 billion in federal relief money — to make big investments in reducing poverty. That includes spending $250 million to establish a paid sick and family leave program, putting $300 million toward improving the state’s childcare system, and raising the minimum wage for home health-care workers.

Jason Gottesman, spokesperson for House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre), said the caucus’ plan for the federal dollars will be reflected in the budget.

“Currently, we are going through the guidance from the federal government on how the money can be spent, taking into account the years of deficit spending from the Wolf administration that needs to be addressed in this budget, and making sure we are responsible to taxpayers by not raising taxes [in] any potential budget plan we put together,” he said by email.

A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) did not respond to request for comment.

Members of the Poor People’s Campaign, like state Democrats, see this as a time for large structural changes — not small ones.

“During the pandemic, inequality in the distribution of wealth has become even more visible, and we have witnessed endless lines of poor people looking for a pantry to feed themselves,” Madelyn Arias, a member of the Movement of Immigrant Leaders in Pennsylvania, said on the steps of the Capitol through a translator.

Angela Couloumbis and Sarah Anne Hughes of Spotlight PA contributed to this story.

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Shaniece Holmes Brown

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