By Dick Miller
WE.CONNECT.DOTS: This is the beginning of the sixth week our state government lacks a constitutionally-mandated operating budget. It’s also “shark week,” at least on the science-fiction cable channel.
What do they have in common?
Both are “gloriously idiotic” and “absolutely pointless.”
With the largest and most expensive legislature in the nation, Pennsylvania has no excuse for habitually failing to meet this legal requirement.
As years pass and lawmakers failure to abide by their oath of office becomes routine, the voters not only are the losers, but also the dummies in this process.
We keep electing and re-electing these “public servants.” We pay them regardless of their production, attendance, attitude or sense of loyalty to the Commonwealth and its citizens.
Because PA is not a referendum state where citizens can petition to get binding issues on the ballot, lawmakers control their own destiny.
There are too many legislators. We pay them too much. They don’t put enough time in their part-time jobs. They ignore not only voters’ wishes, but constitutional mandates.
Seems like their only priority is getting re-elected to a part-time job with great fringe benefits and — thanks to a lazy media — little accountability.
A casual visitor to the state capitol building could conclude “all is well with our government.” Lobbyists are not running hither and yon. Halls are empty.
House speaker Mike Turzai says his half of the legislature is “in recess” until second week of September. Staffers are off on their normal summer vacations.
Three weeks ago, the House and Senate concurred on an official spending plan for fiscal 2017-18 and Gov. Tom Wolf allowed the measure to become law without his signature.
Lawmakers did not agree on a method to pay for the government’s operations. The more moderate Republican-controlled Senate leans to an oil and gas extraction tax. The House wants to borrow and defer more.
Turzai, a candidate for Wolf’s job next year, is deflecting efforts to pass a new tax in his House. Such resistance will be a cornerstone of his 2018 candidacy.
Whenever a state government budget is finally adopted in Pennsylvania, some wag publishes lists of “winners” and “losers” as a result of the $32 billion (approximate) spending plan.
Some “losers” are already obvious, even though a final revenue package has yet to be agreed upon.
Lawmakers keep looking at doctors to help balance the budget. About 20 years ago, Pennsylvania was more famous for gigantic malpractice awards. Doctors formed their own back-up insurance fund with premiums paid into a private fund that was administered by the state.
Today the fund has sufficient reserves for the legislature to consider borrowing doctors’ money to help balance the budget. The idea was in play for last year’s budget. Fund managers threatened legal action and the raid was abandoned.
College students continue to take it on the chin. The state limited an increase in appropriations to the 14-school state university system to two per cent even though the system is on the verge of financial collapse. State related schools — Pitt, Penn State, Temple and Lincoln — get no increase.
Tuition has been raised three percent and Pennsylvania has become the second highest repository for student debt. In tuition and other costs to attend any state related school, we are now the highest, with Pitt and Penn State at or near the most expensive in the country.
If you live in a small, urban school district where kids are not bussed, you have been “had” twice by Republican lawmakers. Legislators have rebuffed two inequitable tax circumstances that Gov. Wolf attempted to fix.
First, he proposed a small reduction in state appropriations to public school transportation programs, believing the funds could be better spent elsewhere.
Second, Wolf proposed municipalities without their own police department pay a small cost ($25 annually per resident) for services provided by Pennsylvania State Police.
Approximately half of state residents now live in municipalities that have no police department and depend on PSP for patrolling and crime-fighting tasks. Roughly, communities with their own police forces spend about $150 per resident annually for these services. The state is spending over $250 annually per resident for PSP services in rural areas. PSP officers are better paid and equipped than local police.
Wolf’s proposed new tax would gather in about $65 million annually. State Police claim they expend $600 million for patrolling in rural areas. This is about half of the PSP budget. Funds have come from gasoline taxes that were raised supposedly to fix roads and bridges.
As more time passes without a formal state budget which authorizes the state to collect all taxes and fees, more school districts and county and regional service agencies will join the “loser” list.
Bottom Line: The financial situation is more critical this year.
State Treasurer Joe Torsella claims a $750 million line of credit he has arranged for the state to meet payrolls and bills due now is “extraordinary and without precedent.”
Borrowing that high this early in the budget year has not occurred in at least 25 years. Additional legislative delays could jeopardize the state’s credit rating.
Illinois finally adopted a budget after three years of fighting between a Democrat legislature and Republican governor. Lawmakers overrode a gubernatorial veto to adopt $5 billion in new taxes. The state now carries a near-junk bond rating.
Because of similar shenanigans in Harrisburg, the state’s Rainy Day Fund balance stood at $245,000 last Thursday. That is enough to fund state government operations for about four minutes.