By Carl Rotenberg, The Times Herald
WHITPAIN >> An interfaith group of clergy, educators and advocates for increased education funding in the 2016 state budget protested inside the offices of three Republican House members Friday.
The suburban bus tour that started at the Philadelphia office of state Rep. Martina White, R-170th Dist., included about 20 protesters who evangelized for House passage of the Senate’s budget bill. The budget includes $350 million in additional education funds and $50 million in additional special education funds, the group said.
POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild) did not visit any Democratic House members, apparently because they have consistently voted for Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget plans to boost education spending.
Inside the office of state Rep. Kate Harper, R-61st Dist, Lower Gwynedd resident David Vossen, a self-described Republican and member of Harper’s church, led the discussion with Harper.
“What I’m worried about is that the state is treating people as commodities,” Vossen said. “It is reprehensible that the Legislature has not approved a budget. It has been more than five months.” Lee Comer, a member of the group from Gilbertsville, pointed out that Lower Merion, which he described as a rich Montgomery County community, does not need state aid for the school district and gets very little state aid.
Harper distributed a synopsis of the amended, $30.26 billion state budget, contained in House Bill 1460, to the group. The proposed budget includes increases of $100 million for basic education, $30 million for special education, $50 million for Ready to Learn, $25 million for Pre-K Counts and $5 million for Head Start.
“There is no agreement on a distribution formula,” Harper said.
The group carried blue signs that read, “PA has the most unfair school funding in the US – #FairFundingPA, #MoralTakeover and FaithinPA.org.” “Our most vulnerable people are being harmed,” Vossen said. “I’m asking that the legislators put these differences aside and pass the Senate version of the budget. Debate has got to end.”
Harper responded that the Senate had passed a spending plan but had not passed a tax plan to fund it. Harper has advocated a new shale tax but has been unable to get enough support in the House or Senate to bring that proposal to a vote. “I voted for a gas tax four times,” she said. “It had bicameral support but it was a heavy lift.”
The citizens’ group included Pastor Billy Thompson and Rabbi Julie Greenberg of Congregation Leyv Ha-Ir — “Heart of the City.” They had planned to say a prayer called “Emmanuel, We are Waiting,” but the discussion with Harper took precedence.
“Pennsylvania is one of just (three) states without a funding formula for schools, which means that state funds for education are distributed according to political whim, not student needs,” the group said in a press release, “leading to underfunding in many districts in the state like Philadelphia.”
The group left to travel to the office of state Rep. Mike Vereb, R-150th Dist., where they met with the state representative.
“They can pray as much as they want,” Vereb said in a telephone interview earlier in the day. “This is the same group that prayed for a basic education bill, which we passed.”
Vereb said he was concerned about the taxpayers in hid district. “I hope they pray for the taxpayers in my district,” Vereb said. “These are very trying times for people. I think they are disconnected from the people sitting at home paying bills.” Harper pointed out that the negotiating process was working because both sides had moved off of their initial budget positions.
“The governor is down from the $4 billion budget increase. He is down to $300 or $400 million,” Harper said. “The Republican budget is about $125 to $150 million more money for education at this point. “At the end of the day,” Harper added, “it comes down to what 102 people will vote for.”
Contact Carl Rotenberg at 267-907-6137 (c) and 484-679-8476.