This article is shared with LebTown by content partner Spotlight PA.
By Marley Parish of Spotlight PA State College
BELLEFONTE — Pennsylvania’s rural communities have much to gain from the $45.5 billion dollar state budget, which earmarks money for outdoor recreation, housing programs, and other efforts.
Rural areas tend to have high amounts of older residents and depend on the outdoor landscape for commerce, attributes that make state spending on the environment, agriculture, and housing especially important for rural economies.
This year’s state budget, though still unfinished, funds financial relief for homeowners, offers farmers a lifeline for potential losses, and launches a new office to make investments in outdoor recreation. It could also provide funding for home repairs and poorer school districts, if lawmakers agree on pending code bill language that is currently holding up roughly $1.1 billion for some state programs.
Spending on housing, health care, and workforce development especially matters for future planning, according to the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, a bipartisan legislative agency. The population of rural counties is expected to decline by 5.8% over the next 30 years, the center recently announced, and the Baby Boomer generation is approaching retirement.
The Center for Rural Pennsylvania considers 48 of the state’s 67 counties rural. According to its figures, roughly 3.4 million residents and 238 of the state’s 500 school districts in 2020 lived in rural areas, a number set to grow in the coming decades. Under its current projections, Westmoreland County, for instance, is expected to transition into a rural county in 2050.
“Now is an opportune time for planners and policymakers to consider these projections and adapt to the changes that are likely to develop across the commonwealth,” Kyle Kopko, the center’s executive director, said in a statement this week. “Communities should carefully consider the implications of these projections.”
The Center for Rural Pennsylvania doesn’t make direct policy recommendations. However, lawmakers who serve on its board of directors said incentivizing business development and expanding health care and caregiving access as the population in rural areas ages should be priorities.
Here’s how some spending approved with the main budget bill could affect rural communities and what additional programs could do if they make it out of code bill limbo.
Property tax and rent rebate program
The expansion, signed by Gov. Josh Shapiro one day after the main budget bill, delivers on a key campaign promise from the Democrat. The first-term governor also identified it as a bipartisan priority during his inaugural budget address earlier this year.
The law makes an estimated 173,000 households newly eligible. The expansion could provide “a larger share of leeway” for someone’s budget in a rural area, Kopko said. He noted that a significant portion of the population in those areas is more likely to have a fixed income.
Lisa Moyer, the long-term living program supervisor at Blair Senior Services, said their roughly 1,000 clients appreciate any policy that gives them more money to put toward core expenses like home and car repair, medical bills, and groceries.
The state budget includes more than $76 million for agriculture, which annually contributes an estimated $132 billion to Pennsylvania’s economy and employs hundreds of thousands of people.
One notable investment includes $31 million to help poultry farmers who lost income due to an outbreak of bird flu.
The virus can be deadly and affected flocks nationwide last year, including more than 4 million birds in Pennsylvania. After avian flu is detected, infected flocks must be euthanized to prevent continued spread. Outbreaks result in losses for farmers and costly egg prices nationwide.
Though state funding to pay for avian flu testing and reimbursement doesn’t totally replace lost revenue, Timothy Kelsey, a Penn State agricultural economics professor, said the dollars help the economy by ensuring poultry farmers still have money to spend locally.
The spending plan allocated $112 million to maintain and make improvements at state parks and forests and established the Office of Outdoor Recreation to help expand the state’s $14 billion outdoors industry.
Though the office has a statewide focus, outdoor recreation opportunities are plentiful in rural areas such as the Pennsylvania Wilds.
The Pennsylvania Wilds includes 13 counties in the northern and central parts of the state, contains about 4% of the state’s population, and accounts for 25% of the commonwealth’s land. Outdoor recreation advocates and businesses hope the budget investments signal the state plans to support the industry and the environment in the long term.
“It directly feeds into the economic benefit, especially our rural communities,” state Rep. Paul Takac (D., Centre) told Spotlight PA of the outdoor recreation industry.
The Whole-Home Repairs Program offers grants and forgivable loans of up to $50,000 for homeowners and small landlords to make repairs, enhance energy efficiency, and improve accessibility for residents with disabilities. It was created with bipartisan support from lawmakers across the state last year.
All but three counties applied for their share of the one-time $125 million in federal pandemic relief dollars that funded the program. Heading into this budget cycle, supporters urged lawmakers to make the program permanent.
The current budget makes Whole-Home Repairs an official line item, allocating $50 million for the program. But code language is still required to direct funding.
The Northern Tier Community Action Corporation helped administer program funds for Elk and Potter Counties. The community organization distributed the $468,000 awarded from the state to help 11 families repair their homes’ roofs and improve their heating systems.
Shawn McAulay, deputy director of Northern Tier, said continued support for Whole-Home Repairs would help families currently on waiting lists — 11 in Elk County and 20 in Potter County — from the last round.
Though the program helps fund home fixes, especially in rural areas, where housing stock is of lower quality, Kopko noted that not every county has the staffing capacity to handle applying to and administering a new program.
One of the reasons Sullivan County opted not to apply for the program was because it was overwhelmed by pandemic-related grants and administrative limitations.
After a Commonwealth Court judge ordered Pennsylvania lawmakers and the governor to develop a more equitable way to fund K-12 public schools, advocates expected a significant down payment toward education funding this year.
Education accounts for a significant portion of the spending plan, which allocates hundreds of millions of dollars to schools statewide. Some education programs — like Level Up — would offer relief for the state’s 100 poorest public school districts, many of which are located in rural counties.
Even if a rural district isn’t considered a Level Up school, it’s likely represented by the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, which has more than 200 members and signed onto the lawsuit challenging the current funding model.
The budget includes $100 million for the Level Up program. However, code language is still needed to direct funding, and disagreement over a school voucher program that Republicans support could prevent Level Up dollars from flowing to eligible schools.
Maura McInerney, legal director of the Education Law Center, told Spotlight PA that including Level Up funding in the budget is necessary to create “transformational change” in the overall system by giving underfunded schools a boost.
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