Pennsylvania will receive over $7.2 billion in federal aid courtesy of President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan — the latest round of federal coronavirus aid to come out of Washington. The federal funds couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for state lawmakers, as they gear up to develop a budget for the next fiscal year.
A big piece of budget negotiations will undoubtedly center on how to use the new funding, which can be used for a broad range of priorities under guidance set by Biden’s administration. Republicans have stressed the need for fiscal restraint as the state’s June 30 budget deadline gets closer, while Democrats in the state House and Senate have called for more investments using the federal dollars.
House Democrats have proposed a $4 billion “Pennsylvania Rescue Plan” that would provide business assistance, health care investments and infrastructure investments using the federal dollars. City & State had the opportunity to talk about to House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton about the details of the plan, a recent statewide tour held to promote it, as well as the chances for bipartisan agreement on components of the plan. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
C&S: What is the Pennsylvania Rescue Plan and what types of priorities would be addressed through the plan?
JM: So the Pennsylvania Rescue Plan is the House Democratic Caucus’ proposal of how the federal funding that came from the American Rescue Plan from President Biden — how it should be spent in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
C&S: What types of components or priorities does this plan outline? Essentially, what would this address if it was implemented?
JM: So, if it were implemented, it would address the major needs that we've seen across the Commonwealth — whether we're talking urban, suburban, rural, city, suburb — and that is for reinvestment, getting people back to work, and building our infrastructure: our roads, our bridges, and of course making sure there's access that's unlimited and unfettered for broadband internet.
C&M: And this would also touch on things like paid leave, correct?
JM: So it's several different categories. One of them is around accessing health care and making sure that our frontline health care workers are paid appropriately, and that direct care workers, for instance, home health aides, some of which in different parts of the state are making less than $15, less than $18, but don't have some of the other benefits if they're exposed to COVID, if they need to quarantine or if they need to just have sick leave, they don't get paid for it currently. And some of this federal funding should be used so that the employers are not losing out and are subsidized essentially for something that is standard with a lot of other jobs and careers.
C&S: And this plan would also touch on various economic development components as well, right? Things like grants to businesses that weren't able to remain open or job creation initiatives, correct?
JM: That is accurate. When we did our tour throughout the Commonwealth, one of the things that we saw was one of the main streets in Reading, how there were, and how there are, historical buildings that provide all sorts of housing and office space and opportunities that are just abandoned, that are blighted. And if we're able to do some investments and some wise spending, we can reinvest and re-establish all of these business corridors, commercial corridors, to get people to work, number one, with getting the buildings together. And then of course as the businesses open, to get them employing people in the community. One of the things we saw in Erie was buildings and large pieces of land that are also just abandoned, where there used to be manufacturing and warehouses. Why aren't we to the point that we're ready to take on — and this is just an example, this is not a part of the plan — but like an Amazon? We should have the plant space ready, the aerial space ready, where the blight is remediated through some of this federal funding.
C&S: Members of your caucus have been touring the state to promote this. What areas of the Commonwealth have you visited during the tour so far?
So we started out in my hometown in Philadelphia. We then went to Reading. The next part of the tour was in Pittsburgh, and from Pittsburgh we went to Erie. From Erie we went to Harrisburg. From Harrisburg, we went to State College. From State College, we went to Scranton and from Scranton we went to Allentown. And in all of these areas, we have themes for the day and themes for the event. Some of them were tours, some of them were actual hearings. One of the most intense hearings that we had was in Scranton. You know, the only healthcare worker in the Pennsylvania House is Representative [Bridget] Kosierowski, and she assembled a panel of nursing professionals — a couple of RNs and also an LPN who talked about the challenges during COVID that were already challenges in hospital setting, but of course they were emphasized — magnified. We had one of the testifiers talk about how people are leaving nursing home care because you can get paid more at Sheetz. And I mean that is a statement that was just resounding with all of us, our entire entire panel reacted to that, asked further questions, because we don't ever want to get to the point in health care, and particularly direct care workers — that's one of the largest employers in the Commonwealth — but we don't want folks leaving that specialized training, and of course those gifts that you have to even care for another human being at a very challenging stage in their life, to go work at Sheetz or some other places where they're just able to get a higher hourly wage.
C&S: Right. And does your plan to address issues like that at all? People potentially leaving their jobs due to higher wages in less-specialized sectors?
JM: Yes, it would and it does. One of the things that we were trying to hit home on is that this federal funding is so vast that we can support the industry, we can make sure that not only hospitals, [but] nursing homes have more reinvestment. Of course it’s only one time but it can be something that they are able to substantiate through better training. We've also talked about making sure that we have folks prepared to go into those industries and that happens in our school buildings across the state with our children. So we have some really bold priorities that would just put Pennsylvania in the best state economically, with our businesses, with jobs, and not just jobs but also training programs. We started in Philly at the Community College of Philadelphia talking about the need for apprenticeships for the next wave of clean energy jobs, and we had people there from IBEW Local 98 talking about all the tremendous work that their students complete. Basically they get an associate's degree by the time they finish that apprenticeship program, and as electricians they're able to do the work for clean energy. So we have a lot going on and we see the spaces where there's going to be growth in Pennsylvania, but at this current time, if we don't use this federal funding wisely, our population won't be ready for these opportunities.
C&S: Looking more at how this federal funding can be used, your caucus released an outline of this plan before the federal government unveiled guidelines on how the money from the American Rescue Plan could be spent. Have these guidelines forced you at all to re-assess parts of this plan? Or to put that another way, can you still spend this roughly $4 billion in your plan the way you would like to after looking at that guidance?
JM: So we have another meeting about that coming up because of course the guidance came down as we were part of the tour. So some questions are not yet answered, others we’re learning, dare I say, making sure that all of our objectives are within alignment because the first thing we want to do is be in compliance. So what we did by being able to conduct the tour and have so many different hearings or press conferences at different parts of the state was to explain that we have this opportunity, right? We have it. We're not going to get it in another generation, and we've got to really figure out a way to push Pennsylvania forward economically. And so I'm going to be meeting with our Appropriations Committee and staff to get into the details. I don't even have all of them as we have this conversation.
C&S: Some House Republicans, including House Republican Leader Kerry Benninghoff, have stressed the importance of using the latest round of federal coronavirus funds in a fiscally responsible manner. He even touched on using it to potentially shore up the state's structural budget deficit. With them expressing a desire to be cautious and prudent with these funds, do you think that could hinder efforts to get some of your plans implemented and enacted into law?
JM: Well, not if the people of Pennsylvania push for real investment. I mean, the first priority in any budget is making sure we don't have shortfalls, right? We want to be responsible and pay all of our standing bills, so to say. But when you think about the fact that, God willing, we don't have another global pandemic in the next several years, we are not going to continue to get federal amounts of money of this sort and of this amount, so we know what we can't do is start a bunch of programs that will need help in three years. But what we can do is make some wise investments. Wise investments include things like what we're talking about now: workforce development, apprenticeship programs — programs that already exist that need a little bit more support. Wise investments ensure that broadband is built with this money. We'll have to have consumers pay for it, but if we can't even get the infrastructure supported, that's a challenge — but this money can be used that way.
C&S: Have you had any conversations yet with Republican leaders on this plan as we get into the heart of budget season?
JM: No, not yet. Not yet. But informal ones, I should say. Very informal. Not like a budget-type meeting yet.
C&S: A spokesperson for Leader Benninghoff referred to the PA Rescue Plan as, and I'll use a direct quote here, “wishful thinking not based in reality or the law.” How would you respond to that?
JM: I don't have a response for that.
C&S: Circling back to components of the plan, are there any pieces of this that you think have a better chance of becoming law than others, or that you think might have a better chance of receiving bipartisan support?
JM: So in my perspective, and that of our leadership team in our caucus, this should be bipartisan. We are not saying that, “Oh, we're going to invest it in Democratic areas.” This is for the entire Commonwealth. This is for people everywhere — folks who don't even vote — this is for the state. This is to put Pennsylvania in a place where we can be the competitive Mid-Atlantic state that we should be. Where Ohio, Delaware, our surrounding states are not competing with us to keep businesses open as they have been. This is for everyone. So in terms of bipartisan[ship], the goal is for it to be bipartisan. Our Republican colleagues can choose a different name, but adopt these principles, put them into this budget, because the people of Pennsylvania need leadership and they also need us to respond to the crisis that has been this pandemic.
C&S: For Pennsylvanians unfamiliar with the proposals within the Pennsylvania Rescue Plan, what's one thing that you would like them to know about it?
JM: I would like them to know that we've taken some real time and effort to see what the shortfalls and challenges have been presented throughout this pandemic. Some of them are not new, others of them have been exacerbated or worsened. And these objectives that we've set out — the way we want to invest this federal funding — is directly in response to those needs.