What Shapiro’s Budget Pitch Could Do for Pennsylvania’s Rural Communities

Spotlight PA

Spotlight PA

Published February 19, 2024 5:35 am
Last Updated: March 28, 2024 4:44 pm
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BELLEFONTE, Pa. — As the populations of Pennsylvania’s rural counties shrink, officials hope future state spending can help slow projected losses by making investments that attract new residents and support local economies.

(Photo: Houses on a street in Tyrone, Pennsylvania. Photo credit: Georgianna Sutherland / For Spotlight PA)

Article by Marley Parish of Spotlight PA State College

The $48.3 billion spending plan unveiled by Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro earlier this month earmarks funding for multiple sectors important to rural areas. With that money, rural communities could expand access to medical services, improve aging housing stock, and market the outdoor landscape to generate local revenue.

Republican lawmakers say the governor’s budget proposal is fiscally irresponsible. However, some county officials think the plan proactively addresses projected population declines outlined in a Center for Rural Pennsylvania report released last fall.

While not every county — especially those in the northeast, where officials say the report uses pre-pandemic data and doesn’t reflect growth — agrees with the forecast, government and education officials who testified during a January hearing on the predictions believe it’s accurate and hope that targeted investments can help them get ahead of the situation.

“I hate to use the cliché, but if you build it, they will come,” McKean County Commissioner Thomas Kreiner, who testified during last month’s hearing, told Spotlight PA. “We have to give, especially the younger people, a reason to want to stay here.”

Kyle Kopko, the Center for Rural Pennsylvania’s executive director, has encouraged policymakers to incorporate the report’s findings into local planning. Though the center doesn’t make direct policy recommendations, lawmakers sit on its board of directors.

State Sen. Gene Yaw (R., Lycoming) told Spotlight PA through a spokesperson that expected population decline “is bigger than a one-time budget issue.”

“In fact, it might be a five or 10-year effort. I’m working with my colleagues on the Center for Rural Pennsylvania board to address some of these issues,” he said.

Yaw, who chairs the Center for Rural Pennsylvania’s Board of Directors, did not provide specifics.

Pennsylvania lawmakers have until June 30 to send a finalized spending plan to the governor’s desk for approval, following negotiations between the divided legislature and Shapiro’s administration.

Here’s how some of the efforts in the governor’s budget proposal could help people in rural communities and what additional programs local officials hope to see included in the final plan.

Agriculture

The governor’s budget proposal would allocate hundreds of millions for agriculture, an industry that generates billions of dollars for the commonwealth’s economy each year, according to the state Department of Agriculture, but one that’s facing challenges.

Research shows that the state’s farmers are getting older, and younger generations face financial barriers when they join the industry due to rising supply and equipment costs and climate change complicating long-term planning.

One notable investment included in the proposal is $10.3 million for the state agriculture innovation fund to support farmers and recruit new businesses to Pennsylvania.

Betsy Huber, executive director of the Pennsylvania Young Farmers Association, told Spotlight PA she hopes the funding helps farmers stay competitive and use technology to be more productive with less work.

Huber and Tim Wentz, president of the Pennsylvania State Council of Farm Organizations, said additional investments in apprenticeship and training programs would also benefit workers.

Health and senior services

Access to health care in rural communities has become increasingly limited as hospitals and other providers close, downsize, or move.

Shapiro has proposed using $400 million for a medical debt relief program, floating the idea that it could focus on those in rural communities.

The governor — who previously ordered officials to develop a 10-year plan to guide the Department of Aging — also called for an $11.7 million investment to support older residents and access to caregivers.

The budget proposal also would provide millions of dollars for mental health care, including the 988 crisis hotline, K-12 resources, and community-based programs.

Huber commended those investments, noting reports of declining mental health in rural areas, especially among farmers.

“Rural mental health is in a crisis. There’s a real issue with the stigma of seeking help in rural areas. Everybody knows everybody,” she said. “Agriculture is such a stressful industry. You’re totally dependent on the weather, whether it rains or not, storms, flooding, and drought. There’s just so much that’s not in the farmer’s control. Plus, lots of times, they’re working alone or isolated on the farm.”

Shapiro has called for an additional $20 million for county mental health services in this budget, proposing annual increases that total $60 million overall by 2025-26. The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania wants to see the final budget plan increase those mental health dollars by $250 million.

“Without a serious investment, these programs, and therefore our residents, many of which are uninsured or underinsured, will continue to struggle,” the association said in a statement. “We are risking real life consequences; we are risking forcing residents into unacceptable wait times or unreasonable travel lengths to receive these critical services.”

Home repairs

The Whole-Home Repairs Program offers grants and forgivable loans of up to $50,000 for homeowners and small landlords to make repairs, improve safety and accessibility for residents with disabilities, and enhance energy efficiency.

Under the governor’s proposal, the pandemic-era initiative — which saw bipartisan support and overwhelming demand when it got underway — would receive $50 million.

Shapiro proposed funding for the housing improvement program last year, but lawmakers didn’t give final approval for the money.

The Union County and Snyder County housing authorities used roughly $500,000 in Whole-Home Repairs funding to start a rental rehabilitation program.

Sharon Leon, the Union County Housing Authority’s executive director, said there’s high demand for housing assistance, estimating a waitlist of more than 200 people asking for help finding an affordable place to live.

Whole-Home Repairs funding has helped the two counties improve existing housing options, including bathroom remodels to address accessibility, heating and window repairs, bringing buildings up to code, and roof replacements, Leon told Spotlight PA.

McKean County used its $372,600 from the program to complete around a dozen projects, Kreiner estimated. He’d like to see more money in the final spending plan, noting that $50 million “doesn’t go a long way” if all 67 counties apply for their share.

The budget proposal also would increase money for the Pennsylvania Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement Fund by $10 million every year for four years, to support home repairs and construction projects.

Outdoor recreation

After launching the state Office of Outdoor Recreation to bolster the industry with $422,000 as part of last year’s budget, the governor’s spending plan would earmark millions more dollars to improve hiking trails and invest in skills training within the sector.

Shapiro’s proposal includes $630 million for the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which the Office of Outdoor Recreation operates within.

Brook Lenker, executive director of the Keystone Trails Association, called the proposed investments “timely” and said he hopes they build on the office’s efforts to make targeted investments in the outdoor industry and connect businesses statewide.

“The state forest system offers some of our greatest hiking trails in Pennsylvania, and a lot of them need some TLC,” Lenker told Spotlight PA.

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