Commentary

If you pay them, they will come | Ray E. Landis

Waiving degree requirements was a good idea. But if you want to attract the best to public service, pay them a competitive wage.

April 23, 2023 6:30 am

Gov. Josh Shapiro and Lt. Gov. Austin Davis host a ceremony to sign their administration’s first executive order on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, at the Capitol in Harrisburg (Capital-Star photo).

One of the first initiatives Gov. Josh Shapiro announced upon taking office this year was to open many positions in state government to individuals who do not have a college degree. Recently the Governor also proposed creating tax breaks for new hires in several professions, including teachers, police officers, and nurses.

There is a common theme to these two ideas.

While Shapiro talked about how state government jobs should be available to more Pennsylvanians, the truth is the Commonwealth is having the same difficulty attracting individuals to these positions as schools, municipalities, and hospitals are in filling their vacancies.

Unfortunately, neither the governor nor most members of the General Assembly appear to have the nerve to tell Pennsylvanians the best way to get high-caliber individuals to work in public service positions. As with almost everything in our nation today, it comes down to money and our unwillingness to require those who have a lot of it to fairly contribute to the public good.

For many years, working in a public sector job was a trade-off. Salaries were lower than in the private sector, but benefits such as health care coverage and retirement plans were generous enough to attract well-qualified individuals who heeded President John F. Kennedy’s words “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

This optimistic, all-for-one and one-for-all approach did not survive the fallout from the Vietnam War and the right-wing effort to convince rural and suburban Americans that government mostly benefitted the “others” in society.

Any position paid through taxpayer funds became suspect, and regressive elected officials at the local, state, and federal level moved to reduce workforces, cut salaries, and eliminate benefits.

Sadly, many celebrated this result because their taxes did not increase. The few dollars the average American saved in taxes through these policies paled in comparison to the tax advantages granted to the wealthy, however.

And when concerns began to be raised about the quality of health care, government services or education, the right-wing doubled down by promoting privatization, creating even more of a tiered system where the rich get the best services and everyone else is on their own.

In this new world of non-competitive salaries, minimal benefits, and restrictive work rules, it is difficult to attract the best and the brightest to public sector jobs. Shapiro’s actions and proposals are well-meaning, but underwhelming.

Many positions in state government should be available to those without a college degree. But earning a degree is not just about fulfilling academic requirements and paying tuition.

In his first executive order, Shapiro removes degree requirement for thousands of state jobs

Critical thinking is a skill ideally developed while attending a college or university. And critical thinking is a skill needed in state government work. Experience can substitute for education in many instances, but education should not be frivolously dismissed as a job qualification.

Meanwhile, a three-year tax credit of $2,500 for new hires is helpful to those just starting out in their professions. But starting salaries, particularly in rural areas, are low enough that some new hires won’t owe $2,500 in state taxes. And these professions not only need incentives for workers to enter them, they need incentives for workers to stay.

But even this modest tax incentive proposal has drawn the ire of Pennsylvania Republicans.

State Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, who appears to be auditioning for the role of defender of the upper class, criticized the Governor’s idea and suggested that lowering the state income tax rates would put more money in people’s pockets. Such a move would put a lot more money in the pockets of the wealthy in Pennsylvania, of course, but Senator Pittman fails to talk about that – at least in public.

The suggestion to lower the state income tax flies in the face of the true solution to attracting high quality candidates to work in state government and serve our communities as teachers, nurses or in law enforcement. The way forward is through higher salaries, improved working conditions, and better benefits.

But such a solution costs money – taxpayer money.

Pennsylvanians have been convinced to believe our regressive state income tax system is the fairest approach to taxation. But as the income gap grows, and rich Pennsylvanians accumulate more and more, it has become apparent if we want quality schools, health care, law enforcement, and government services, we should institute a progressive tax system which increases rates on the wealthy.

The shortage of public sector workers is not likely to be solved in 2023, nor will a progressive income tax system be enacted. But these two concerns go together, and we need more elected officials who are looking for a solution to the first issue to recognize the second idea is the best path forward.

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Ray Landis
Ray Landis

A former spokesman for the Pennsylvania AARP, Contributor Ray E. Landis writes about issues that matter to older Pennsylvanians.

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