724,000,000 good reasons

Columnist : Albert Paschall

 $724 million sounds like a lot of money.  But in state government it’s not.  This year it’s the most dangerous number in Pennsylvania.  It’s the Commonwealth’s anticipated budget surplus and in this pre-election year that kind of money can only add up to trouble for the state’s taxpayers.

$724 million sounds like it could buy a lot of education in Pennsylvania.  But it won’t.  The state already has $5.8 billion budgeted for the 2,147,000 elementary and high school students.  That money is backed by an average about $7,000 per student each school year from local property tax payers.  $337 dollars a student won’t make much difference in that equation.

      $724 million sounds like it could buy a lot of highway improvements.  But it won’t.  PennDot’s road projects are moving bulldozers all over the state at rates as high as $20 million a mile.  Route 30 from Gettysburg to Philadelphia, concentrated in Lancaster County, and route 202 from Valley Forge to the Delaware State Line will easily eat up $724 million.  That leaves 44,880 miles of state highways that some day will need repair.

     $724 million sounds like it could buy a $129 tax credit for every homeowner that pays school taxes in Pennsylvania.  In a pre-election year giveback called Home STAR, the School Tax Relief Plan put forward by Democratic Senators Mellow, Madigan and Tartaglione makes for nice headlines but no real relief.  This star won’t shine because no one seems to know where the $129 number came from.  While this one time gift might buy a family’s groceries for a week or pay for a senior’s prescription the plan ignores small business proprietors that also deserve a proportionate share.

     $724 million sounds like it could buy every member of the Pennsylvania House a ticket to a permanent seat.  The risk is real that the Democratic proposal is only the first attempt to raid the surplus.  It gives 205 House member the chance to grab $3.5 million for every district.  With a razor thin Republican majority, Democrats will see this nest egg as a way to hatch plans to regain control of the House next year.  Restoring the Democratic control that raised taxes over 20% during the Casey years to protect the state bond rating.  A time when more than 80,000 jobs left Pennsylvania.

      $724 million isn’t a lot of money according to veteran Senate Appropriations Committee chair Richard Tilghman.  “The trees won’t grow to the sky forever,” Tilghman says, “if the economy slows down we’ll need that surplus for state bonds.  Maybe we should look to put more money into public education and relieve the pressure on senior citizens.”

      $724 million sounds like it could buy a lot of things and in this pre-election year in Harrisburg.  However coupled with the state’s Rainy-Day fund its only about 9% of the state’s $19 billion budget.  Running Pennsylvania’s 501 school districts, 45,000 miles of highways and everything else the state does cost just about $54 million a day.  Tilghman’s right that surplus ought to be salted away.  Some day times might not be so good and an extra $724 million could carry the state for a couple of weeks.

      Polls conducted by the Lincoln Institute show that 64% of municipal officials in the state believe that Harrisburg’s stranglehold on their local taxes are unfair.  They want the system reformed so that our senior citizens don’t have to choose between the auction block and health care because of property taxes for schools.  If the Democrats want to be stars they owe it to the citizens of Pennsylvania to respond to that demand.  There are 724,000,000 good reasons to do that in Harrisburg right now.