General Assembly

Free-market think tank calls for expanded school choice policies and tax reforms

The Commonwealth Foundation has unveiled a 23-point legislative agenda for 2023

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building Richard T. Nowitz / Getty Images

A Harrisburg free-market think tank unveiled its 2023 legislative agenda this week, which proponents say is backed by polling data and could help revitalize the commonwealth – if lawmakers adopt their recommendations.

The Commonwealth Foundation’s “Better Pennsylvania” plan proposes a raft of reforms to how the state approaches education, tax policy, criminal justice and labor unions, among other topics. 

“It’s a 23-point agenda that equips lawmakers and state officials with a very practical roadmap to get Pennsylvania back on the right track, restore hope to our citizens across the Commonwealth, and set us on a better path that allows all Pennsylvanians to flourish,” said Jennifer Stephano, the Commonwealth Foundation’s executive vice president. 

The policy plan includes a slate of recommendations that have become hallmarks of the think tank’s work in state government. The plan calls for an expansion of the state’s tax credit scholarship programs, the creation of restricted-use Education Opportunity Accounts and a report card-style grading system for public schools. 

The Commonwealth Foundation also calls for the implementation of spending limits on state government, replacing certain tax credits with broader business tax cuts and pulling the state out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multistate carbon pricing initiative. 

Other suggestions include privatizing the state’s liquor and wine sales system, updating the state’s election laws to include voter ID requirements and restrictions against third-party election grants. The Commonwealth Foundation’s wide-ranging plan also focuses on public sector unions, and recommends the adoption of “paycheck protection” legislation, which would prohibit unions from making automatic deductions from worker paychecks, with the goal of trying to stop the dues from being used for political purposes.

Marc Stier, the director of the Pennsylvania Budget & Policy Center, a left-leaning think tank based in Harrisburg, said the spending limits and corporate tax cuts proposed by the Commonwealth Foundation would “drastically reduce state investment in education at all levels leading to property tax increases and a failure to properly educate the next generation of Pennsylvanians.”

“The billionaires who fund the Commonwealth Foundation will benefit from their proposals,” Stier said. “The rest of (us) will suffer. Kansas and Louisiana adopted these proposals in the last decade with devastating results. And then their voters demanded a U-turn.”

The Commonwealth Foundation says its agenda is supported by the general public, citing polling commissioned from Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm based in Alexandria, Virginia. 

The poll found that 68% of respondents believe the state is on the “wrong track,” with 40% listing rising prices and inflation as their biggest concern in the leadup to this year’s elections for governor and members of the General Assembly. Next was “economy and jobs,” with 19% saying that would be the issue that is most important to them in this year’s elections, and third was abortion, with 10%. 

The survey, which polled 600 registered voters and has a credibility interval of +/-4.56%, asked voters about their thoughts on a range of Commonwealth Foundation proposals. 

Of those surveyed, 53% said the state is “worse” for business than it was ten years ago, while 33% said it was “about the same” and 14% said the state’s business climate is better than it was a decade ago.

A majority of respondents said they either “strongly” or “somewhat” approve of Gov. Tom Wolf’s job as governor, with 53% saying they approve of Wolf’s job as governor and 47% saying they disapprove. 

As for the policy proposals themselves, they’ve so far received a mixed response from political factions within the General Assembly. 

Nicole Reigelman, press secretary for the House Democratic Caucus, said Democrats would welcome a reduction in the state’s Corporate Net Income Tax rate, and highlighted legislation sponsored by a Democratic member that would drop the state’s CNIT rate to 6.99%.

However, Reigelman criticized the idea of state spending limits, calling it “poor public policy that does nothing more than handcuff future budgets.” Reigelman also expressed concerns with the Commonwealth Foundation’s plan to expand school choice programs, saying that “diverting more funds from public schools to private and for-profit schools exasperates a system that is already deeply inequitable.”

Jason Gottesman, a spokesperson for the House Republican Caucus, touted recent efforts by Republican lawmakers to lower the state’s Corporate Net Income Tax rate and utilize the state’s federal COVID-19 relief funds in a cautious manner. 

Gottesman said House Republicans will remain focused on “an agenda that gets government out of the way and opens Pennsylvania up to natural growth opportunities rooted in family sustaining jobs and strong and vibrant communities.”