Housing, Education and Creation Care Get Boost in State Budget
The 2022-23 Pennsylvania budget includes significant gains for education, housing and creation care, but only a modest increase for anti-hunger programs.
A $1.8 billion increase in education funding makes strides toward decreasing the funding gap in what has been one of the least equitable school funding systems in the country. The spending plan passed by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Tom Wolf on July 8, contains a $525 million increase through the Fair Funding Formula, with another $225 million targeted to the 100 neediest school districts.
“We are celebrating the progress made in closing these equity gaps, as well as the major investments in housing and creation care,” said LAMPa Director Tracey DePasquale. “While we are grateful for the modest increase in anti-hunger programs, we have concern that it will not go far enough in the face of rising food prices.
“Advocates engaged in ministry with neighbors facing hunger and homelessness shared stories with lawmakers of increasing need on both fronts,” DePasquale said.
Of the highlights among LAMPa’s priorities, the spending plan allocates $375 million in American Rescue Plan (ARP) funding for affordable housing construction, rehabilitation, and repairs. That includes $125 million for a new Whole Home Repairs Program within the Department of Community and Economic Development. The program is intended to fill gaps in existing weatherization and repair programs and provide the opportunity to bring repair assistance to every community in the Commonwealth.
“The Whole Home Repairs Program is exciting because it will help Pennsylvanians, especially seniors and persons with disabilities, stay in their homes,” DePasquale said. “It will extend the life of our aging housing stock, help build generational wealth, and increase energy efficiency. It’s a win for our communities and our environment.”
Although LAMPa had hoped to see the cap on the state housing trust fund raised, the final budget does include $150 million for construction cost relief to close gaps in Low Income Housing Tax Credit deals in danger of failing because of rapidly rising costs in materials and labor as well as $100 million for a Housing Options Grant Program. The program will be established and administered by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency. Grants will be made to developers or non-profit organization for a project that meets the requirements for an award under Federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit. Grant recipients must agree to provide matching funds of at least 25 percent of the amount to be awarded.
LAMPa had also supported increases in funding for creation care, with a special focus on clean water in light of widespread waterway impairment across the Commonwealth. The budget allocates $884.75 million for clean water, land conservation, parks, energy efficiency and forest investments. This includes $696 million for the new State Parks and Outdoor Recreation Program—formerly known as the Growing Greener program—as well as new funding for clean water infrastructure in the Clean Streams Fund. The budget also increased critical environmental agency budgets by $63.75 million. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), the Department of Agriculture (PDA), and river basin commissions were invested in after decades of cuts, directly resulting in more staffing and programming.
Despite rising food prices and a continued increase in demand that is straining the state’s charitable food network, the commonwealth’s 2022-23 General Fund budget holds the line on funding for the State Food Purchase Program (SFPP), one of the state’s most important anti-hunger programs. The spending plan includes a $2 million increase for the Pennsylvania Agricultural Surplus System (PASS). Together, these two programs are the source of funding for much of the food in our congregational and community pantries.
The increase takes PASS from $2.5 million to $4.5 million. SFPP remains at $20.188 million. The PASS appropriation is included within the SFPP line item, which totals $24.688 million for both programs within the Department of Agriculture’s budget. LAMPa and partners in the Pa. Hunger Action Coalition (PHAC) had been seeking $24 million for SFPP and $5 million for PASS in the state’s 2022-23 fiscal year budget.
“We appreciate the partnership we have with the state. They made sure we had the resources we needed during the pandemic. But we cannot go back to pre-pandemic levels because the strains on our food banks have not gone away. In fact, they continue to increase. The demand for assistance is still high, while new challenges like rising food and fuel prices make our daily workload all the more demanding,” according to Sheila Christopher, Executive Director of Hunger-Free Pennsylvania, a member of PHAC. “We will continue to do everything we can to make sure everyone who needs a meal gets one.”
Christopher noted that the flat funding for SFPP came at a time when the state reported record revenue surpluses, much of which went unspent in the final 2022-23 budget.
SFPP remains a lifeline for food banks across Pennsylvania, helping all 67 counties purchase and distribute food to low-income families and seniors. SFPP also helps food banks access federal food commodities and finance transportation and infrastructure improvements. When food prices rise, SFPP funding doesn’t go as far.
Pennsylvania’s agriculture sector, farm communities, and food insecure residents all benefit from PASS, which redirects millions of pounds of Pennsylvania-grown agricultural products that might otherwise go to waste to organizations that provide nutritious meals.
LAMPa and PHAC partners sought to raise the minimum nutrition assistance benefit for seniors and Pennsylvanians with disabilities. While that was not funded, the budget did expand or extend relief in other forms for those on fixed incomes.
Among health care allocations, the budget contains includes a 17.5 percent increase in Medicaid reimbursement for nursing home services, as well as more than $131 million in federal COVID-19 relief dollars for nursing homes.
The budget projects having a $3.6 billion surplus at the end of the fiscal year and deposits $2.1 billion in the state’s Rainy Day Fund, bringing the balance up to $5 billion.