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Budget Stalemate

Pennsylvania begins its new fiscal every year at the end of June, and with the end of the fiscal year comes the need for a new budget for the Commonwealth.

Budget negotiations began in earnest two to three months before this deadline so that the legislature, consisting of the House and Senate, can pass a budget that the executive branch, the Governor, will sign into law.

Budget negotiations are a long and drawn out process where the legislature and the executive branch haggle over their various policy agendas.

In 2014, a new governor, Tom Wolf, was elected to be the 46th governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Wolf is a Democrat. During this election, the Republican Party failed to hold onto the Governor’s Mansion, but did succeed at building their majority in both houses of the Pennsylvania Legislature. These events would set the stage for a particularly difficult set of budget negotiations; budget negotiations that are now four months overdue.  These budget negotiations have made life difficult for some students right here at Northampton Community College.

At stake is the future of the Commonwealth, with each side believing their agenda will be the correct one to move PA forward.

Governor Wolf and his legislative allies are pushing a tax-and-spend style of government, according to PoliticsPA. The political website reports of the latest budget proposal, “The deal does not contain a natural gas severance tax but does include a 1.25% increase in the sales tax statewide.”

Furthermore, it reports that “Spending under the yet to be agreed to agreement totals $30.7 billion, a 6% increase fueled by $500 million in slot machine gambling revenue which is currently distributed to school districts who pass it along to homeowners through property tax cuts.”

Wolf’s Republican counterparts are generally opposed to what they believe are unnecessary increases in taxes, and are pushing for alternative measures to fund state government such as liquor privatization and pension reform.

Governor Wolf has been open to the idea.

“Today I put on the table historic reforms on pensions and liquor… two things that they say are very important to them,” Wolf said at a press conference in the Capitol building..

Wolf has countered this approach by railing against one-time budget items that wouldn’t provide a long-time solution, similar to those used in the 2014 budget.

“Though the 2014-2015 fiscal year ended with $274 million in the black, [the legislature’s] smoke and mirrors budget relied on over $2 billion in one time, unsustainable sources,” the businessman turned governor explained.“These included revenue shifts and delaying payments on services and building projects until the next fiscal year.”

The result of this: Pennsylvania is currently experiencing a government shutdown, but citizens of PA would be forgiven if they hadn’t taken note. The shutdown of Pennsylvania’s government has had large differences from that of a federal government shutdown, and, for the most part, this is by design.

In Pennsylvania residents can still receive public assistance benefits such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), unemployment compensation, and WIC (support for Women, Infants, and Children). They can still go to a PennDOT center, the prisons are still running, and State Parks remain open to the public.

With so many critical functions still up and running, it’s easy to forget that the Commonwealth is not open for business.

However, students at Northampton Community College are feeling the effects of this stalemate in Harrisburg. While budget negotiations are ongoing, the Pennsylvania government cannot pay any student the financial aid they are owed from agencies like PHEAA (Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency). This has left many students in a financial predicament.

Students like Justyne Kosinski, a Fine Arts major,  are feeling the effects of this budget stalemate right here at NCC.

“I can’t buy supplies for my art classes, I owe money to various people, close to $400, due to the fact that I can’t buy canvasses, paint, or drawing supplies or any other supplies I need. So I’m deeply in debt and there’s nothing I can do about it until the budget gets signed,” Kosinski said.

Another student at NCC, Mariah Carney, a General Studies major, has chosen to delay her education.

“I dropped two classes because I owed $1600,” she said.

Looking at the big picture reveals even more troubling stats.

Lori Williams, a Financial Aid Officer at NCC, said the school is expecting about $2,100,000 in regular state grants distributed to 2400 students, and $240,000 distance pilot grants distributed to 319 students.

“Our concern is that when the budget is passed it will affect the amount of assistance the students will receive going forward, though we will be doing everything we can to not penalize the students going forward,” Williams said.