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Pennsylvania State 'Survival Budget' Passed

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Sarah Kovash
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90.5 WESA
Pennsylvania's governor signed off on an $11 billion budget Monday that maintains current funding levels without room for extra spending.

On today's program: State government reporter Charles Thompson explains why the approved state budget was passed with few frills or debate; and we hear about the Marshall Plan for Middle America, a roadmap to support an equitable economic transition to renewable energy for Pennsylvania and nearby states.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf approves $11 billion budget

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Monday afternoon, Gov. Tom Wolf signed budget bills totalling $11 billion to fund state operations through the remainder of the fiscal year. The legislature passed those bills over the weekend.

The first part of the budget was approved in May, allocating $25.8 billion.

The two-part process was driven by the pandemic, explains Charles Thompson, state government reporter for the Patriot News and PennLive.

“Between the governor’s budget address in February of this year and the actual start of earnest budget negotiations was the coronavirus pandemic.” says Thompson. The plan in the spring, he says, was to build a baseline budget that funds public schools and universities, and keeps the rest of state government moving through November when the situation would be assessed again.

The spring budget remained largely unchanged; Thompson says much of the funding remained level with no new taxes approved, and no significant increases in funding for any one department. 

The budget bills were passed 104-97 in the House and 31-18 in the Senate, mostly along party lines.

“There’s no real new basket of funds,” says Thompson. “It’s kind of a survival budget.”

There was still room for some contention, however. Thompson says lawmakers disagreed on how to use $1.3 billion leftover from the federal CARES Act. Restaurant and bar owners were even rallying on the state Capitol steps, he says, asking for funding.

“The Wolf administration at the end was simply hoping to try to get a budget passed that would allow them to keep the state government afloat and not force them to furlough people,” Thompson explains. He says even Republicans were not keen on seeking cuts, understanding the situation the pandemic has put the state in. 

“Everybody seemed to take their normal philosophical points of view and push them into the next year when things might be, hopefully, a little more normal.”

Democratic Senate Leader Jay Costa of Pittsburgh said he wasn’t happy with the budget, but voted for it, saying the state needs the funding to continue operations.

Thompson says Costa and other lawmakers are pinning their hopes on a windfall from the incoming Biden Administration.

“[They hope] that will reset the possibility for a next round of federal relief and that relief may include big chunks of money for state and local governments.”

Marshall Plan for Middle America calls for $600 billion investment in environmental, economic, and health equity
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Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and other leaders have called for a “new Marshall Plan” for a massive investment in middle America. The newly announced roadmap shares its namesake with the plan that helped rebuild Western Europe after World War II.

The Marshall Plan for Middle America Roadmap is a report from researchers at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Sustainable Business. It outlines a vision for transitioning energy sources in the Appalachia and Ohio River Valley from fossil fuels to renewables in a way that promotes equity among the people who work and live amidst these changing industries.

This Marshall Plan for a transitioning industry recognizes the need for racial and environmental justice.

Carmen Gonzalez, a professor of law at Loyola University of Chicago, says her research has identified a strong link between racism and polluting industries.

“If you look at who has been most impacted by the extraction, transportation, combustion of fossil fuels, it’s low income communities and communities of color, not just in the United States, but all over the world,” says Gonzalez. Her work was cited within the Marshall Plan for Middle America.

Dr. Leslie Marshall, lead author of the roadmap, agrees that environmental justice, race and equity are interrelated. “By investing in renewable energy infrastructure, it has potential to improve outcomes across the board.”

Marshall says this especially matters in the age of COVID-19: “There’s a growing number of reports and studies that are suggesting and showing that women, people of color, immigrant communities are all feeling the negative effects of COVID from a jobs perspective much more acutely, in addition to a public health perspective.”

A sustainable economic future, Marshall explains, involves balancing equity, environment and economics so that current and future generations can thrive.

“We're thinking about a way to catalyze investment across our four-state region,” says Marshall, noting that the roadmap targets areas in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky. This includes developing workforce development pipelines and pre-apprenticeship programs that recruit and retain women and people of color.

Gonzalez adds that any change has to be a “planned transition” that intentionally promotes communities that have often been marginalized. “In my own work I write about clean energy projects elsewhere in the world that have actually reinforced the injustices of the fossil fuel economy, that have taken place at the backs of and at the expense of low income people, communities of color,” says Gonzalez. “For example, I cite wind farms in Oaxaca, Mexico that have been placed on indigenous lands but the indigenous peoples are not getting the benefit of energy. The benefits are going to large corporations.”

The roadmap acknowledges the most immediate challenge is raising an estimated $600 billion to implement the Marshall Plan over the next ten years.

Marshall says the effort to make the plan bipartisan, based on what local communities want and need was intentional. She adds that while a changing federal administration may help, the intention was always to garner local funding as well. 

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

Kevin Gavin is the host of WESA's news interview program "The Confluence." He is a native Pittsburgher and served as news director for 90.5 WDUQ for 34 years. Since the sale of the radio station by Duquesne University to Pittsburgh EPM, Inc. (now Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corp.), he served as Executive Producer of Special News Projects prior to being named as host of "The Confluence" five years ago. kgavin@wesa.fm
Laura Tsutsui is a producer for The Confluence, WESA's morning news show. Previously, she reported on the San Joaquin Valley with the NPR affiliate station in her hometown of Fresno, California. She can be reached at ltsutsui@wesa.fm.
Julia Zenkevich is a general assignment reporter for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at jzenkevich@wesa.fm.
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