At the start of a new year we reflect on the time past and look forward to a fresh start. That's exactly what we're doing in the Pennsylvania Senate.
The 2015-16 legislative session began with a new governor determined to impose an agenda out of touch with ordinary Pennsylvanians, including massive government growth and the largest tax increase in commonwealth history. Bolstered by the support of an electorate that sent a large Republican majority to Harrisburg, we stood firm. For two consecutive budgets, Senate Republicans rejected the Wolf administration's efforts to enact massive, broad-based tax increases.
During that same two-year period, we also passed three historic pension reform bills, beginning with a series of sweeping changes, which were vetoed by the governor.
We also took the first steps in getting the commonwealth out of the liquor business by providing for the private sale of wine at restaurants and grocery stores, as well as making many other changes that will result in increased customer convenience.
We championed the legislation that makes it possible for Pennsylvania doctors to use medical cannabis to treat chronic pain and children suffering seizures. At the same time, we continued our multi-year effort to confront the opioid crisis, which is affecting every facet of our communities, by passing an array of bills to prevent and treat addiction to opioids and heroin.
As we prepare to start our new legislative session, we know the state's budget will again dominate the conversations; after all, we have been talking about budget deficits for at least a decade. Most of these deficits are driven by pension costs, as well as increases to the corrections and human services budgets.
In the coming months, we will be faced with two choices: We can raise taxes, or we can take a look at those three issues and reduce the rate of growth.
Public employee pensions are an area where we are committed to continuing to take the steps necessary to reduce the risk to taxpayers. Significant changes must be made to both the State Employees' Retirement System and the Public School Employees' Retirement System in order to ensure long-term viability.
Changes include moving away from the traditional defined-benefit program and toward the type of defined-contribution program that most in the private sector enjoy. Doing so would significantly reduce the risk to taxpayers while giving employees flexibility in their retirement planning.
At the same time, the Department of Human Services (DHS) budget continues to increase by hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Medicaid costs are jumping and baby boomers are retiring and finding themselves in need of benefits. None of this is a surprise, but it's not something for which the state was prepared.
Changes to DHS programs, specifically to Medicaid and long-term care, do not have to result in reduced benefits but rather should be an effort to make certain that the money is being spent wisely. We have to examine the structure of the entire department to make sure we are getting what we pay for and the programs are being administered as efficiently as possible. We need to take a deeper dive into the numbers and the operations.
In our corrections system, we see a recidivism rate of about 50 percent and a budget that is increasing by $150 million a year. We need to find a way to help those who have been incarcerated return to their communities successfully and not return to the correction system.
Our desire to take a closer look at the significant increases in spending that I have outlined should not be seen as criticizing the performance of the departments or the current administration. I recognize that we all must work together to comprehend why the costs are rising and what our options are to make things better.
Unless we want to see our budgets continue to grow significantly faster than our revenues, we must have the courage to deal with difficult issues that will affect very delicate constituencies.
The easiest thing to do to address budget deficits would be to increase taxes. The hardest thing is to put in the work to reform these areas and slow the growth. One reason it is so hard is because the benefits of these reforms may not be seen for years. But unless you put in the time and effort and begin to make reforms, you are looking at a future of repeated and significant tax increases.
This month, lawmakers return to Harrisburg with a significant majority of people who were elected because they want to do a job, not because they needed one. We are coming to work with the knowledge that tough decisions will have to be made and a commitment that increasing taxes is the last resort - not the first.
Government tends to legislate by crisis - look at the problem of the day, address it, and don't worry about tomorrow. But tomorrow has come, and, with it, we must enact significant reforms that will have long-lasting impacts on government spending.