State Fiscal Briefs

November 2020

Looking for Pennsylvania data related to the pandemic? We have health, economic, and fiscal data on our new tool, How the COVID-19 Pandemic is Transforming State Budgets.

Pennsylvania’s budget basics

According to the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO), Pennsylvania’s total expenditures in fiscal year (FY) 2020 were $92.7 billion, including general funds, other state funds, bonds, and federal funds. NASBO reported that total expenditures across all states in FY 2020 were $2.3 trillion, ranging from $4.7 billion in Wyoming to $337.7 billion in California.

Each state allocates spending and taxes differently among different levels of governments, and local governments often administer programs with state funds, so combined state and local government data show a more complete picture of individual benefits and contributions when comparing states.

Per the US Census Bureau, Pennsylvania’s combined state and local direct general expenditures were $129.2 billion in FY 2017 (the most recent year census data were available), or $10,102 per capita. (Census data exclude “business-like” activities such as utilities and transfers between state and local governments.) National per capita direct general expenditures were $9,446.

Pennsylvania’s largest spending areas per capita were public welfare ($2,680) and elementary and secondary education ($2,309). The Census Bureau includes most Medicaid spending in public welfare but also allocates some of it to public hospitals. Per capita spending is useful for state comparisons but is an incomplete metric because it doesn’t provide any information about a state’s demographics, policy decisions, administrative procedures, or residents’ choices.

Pennsylvania’s combined state and local general revenues were $125.4 billion in FY 2017, or $9,805 per capita. National per capita general revenues were $9,592. Pennsylvania uses all major state and local taxes. After federal transfers, Pennsylvania’s largest sources of per capita revenue were charges ($1,536), such as state university tuition and highway tolls, and property taxes ($1,528).

Pennsylvania’s politics

Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat, was elected in 2018 with 58 percent of the vote. The next gubernatorial election is in 2022.

Pennsylvania has a divided government. Republicans control both the House of Representatives (107 Republicans to 92 Democrats) and Senate (28 Republicans to 21 Democrats and 1 independent). All Pennsylvania House seats are on the ballot in 2020 because representatives serve two-year terms. Senators serve four-year terms; roughly half the senatorial seats are on the ballot in 2020, and the other half will be up for election in 2022.

Pennsylvania’s budget institutions, rules, and constraints

Pennsylvania uses an annual budget. The legislature must pass a balanced budget, but it can carry a deficit over into the following year. Pennsylvania does not have any other tax or expenditure limits. The state does limit total authorized debt and debt service incurred by the state.

(Note: Some states have informal budget institutions that constrain overall spending growth or a specific expenditure’s growth.)

Pennsylvania’s recent fiscal debates

  • For the past decade, Pennsylvania has debated creating a severance tax. A severance tax is a tax on the extraction of natural resources such as oil and natural gas. Pennsylvania is the only major gas-producing state without a severance tax. (California does not levy a tax but has a fee on extraction.) Governor Wolf campaigned on creating a severance tax during his 2014 campaign and has put forward five tax proposals (one for each of his budget proposals) since taking office. The influential natural gas industry and most Republican legislators oppose the tax because they fear it will make natural gas production more expensive and cost the state jobs. Opponents of the tax also note Pennsylvania created a “drilling impact fee” in 2012 and has collected roughly $200 million in revenue from it each year since its enactment. Governor Wolf’s proposals for a severance tax (which would be levied in addition to the fee) have varied from year to year, but his office estimated legislation introduced in 2018 would have raised $250 million over the next fiscal year if it had been enacted. However, severance tax revenue is inherently volatile and difficult to predict.
  • Reducing property taxes in Pennsylvania is another seemingly never-ending debate in state and local finance. Over the past few years, the legislature has debated several bills that would completely eliminate property taxes for homeowners, and big property tax reductions have been at the center of the state’s political discussions for decades. In December 2019, a study outlined five new plans for reducing school property taxes. The legislature is expected to debate one or all of the proposals in 2020. However, the same core problem remains: all five plans reduce revenue by billions of dollars each year and require large increases in the individual income tax and general sales tax to offset the revenue cost.
  • Pennsylvania was one of the first states to allow legal and taxable sports betting. The state’s tax rate on a casino’s gaming revenue is relatively high (36 percent), but what sets Pennsylvania apart from other states is its license fee. Although obtaining a sports betting license costs only a few thousand dollars in other states, an operator in Pennsylvania must pay a one-time fee of $10 million to obtain a license. When Pennsylvania casinos were slow to add sportsbooks in 2018, many blamed the high cost of a license. However, eight casinos eventually opened sportsbooks, and at least three more are in the process. Although it is only a one-time revenue source, the $110 million in fees the state has collected is far more than the relatively low-revenue states collect from their sports gambling taxes. For example, New Jersey collected roughly $30 million in its first year, the most of any state.

Pennsylvania’s current budget

Governor Tom Wolf announced his proposed FY 2020 budget in February 2019. The budget and his 2019 state of the state address prioritized education, suggesting spending increases in basic education funding, special education, teacher salaries, and preschool programs. He also emphasized workforce development in a package of policies called the Statewide Workforce, Education and Accountability Program. Governor Wolf also recommended raising Pennsylvania’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $12 an hour.

The legislature passed its budget in June 2019. The enacted budget generally followed the governor’s recommendations for an additional $300 million in education spending and more resources for workforce development. However, the legislature did not increase the state’s minimum wage.

Governor Wolf gave his 2020 budget address and released his proposed FY 2021 budget in February 2020.

For more on Pennsylvania’s budget, see