Bill Murray must be furious.
Two decades after the release of his classic Groundhog Day — in which a series of events is repeated over and over — Governor Rendell and the Pennsylvania legislature have trumped him. The passage of yet another horrendous budget has made our politicians the new poster children for Groundhog Day.
While, ironically, the movie and budget debacle are set in the same state, there is one key difference. The movie is a make-believe two-hour comedy. But the budget is a tragedy that will play out for decades to come. And it’s one from which we can’t awaken, relieved that it was all a bad dream.
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Give Rendell and the legislature credit where it’s due. If nothing else, they’re consistent.
Collectively, they haven’t executed a budget on time in any of the eight Rendell years. And each budget is a replay of the year prior: bloated spending, job-crushing tax increases, more bureaucracy, and the preservation of pols’ pet projects.
The consequence of this deliberate malfeasance is no longer opinion, but simple fact: Our state is at or near the bottom in job creation, employment prospects, and college students remaining in the state after graduation. We have the most hostile legal system in the country, levy some of the highest taxes, and produce a vastly inferior educational product.
Our bridges and infrastructure are, literally, falling apart, and, year after year, we earn the dubious distinction of having the worst roads in the nation.
And, certainly not least, the legislature’s excessive coddling of the unions and their sacred-cow state pension system has made the state insolvent, with bankruptcy in the next two to three years a very real possibility.
Quite a legacy.
We are imploding, and will soon reach fiscal Armageddon. (As an aside, it was quite strange to repeatedly hear the governor refer to our situation as "Armageddon," a term he seems to have borrowed from Yours Truly, despite that fact that 1) he won’t consent to an interview with Freindly Fire, and 2) he, more than anyone, is responsible for the financial calamity in which we find ourselves.)
Because our elected officials "have theirs." It’s that simple.
The governor will parachute into a seven-figure job when he’s done in January, and legislators enjoy one of the most lavish pension and perk systems in the country. Which, of course, they voted to give themselves, courtesy of we the (forgotten) taxpayers.
Oh, and one more thing.
In order to facilitate this legendary budget prowess, they break the law on an annual basis. Unlike the federal government, which can and does operate in the red, Pennsylvania is mandated to have a balanced budget.
But this would require Rendell and the legislature to tighten their belts and live within the same constraints as Pennsylvania families. And who really wants to do that when you own the keys to the Treasury? There are far too many projects that need funding, no matter how wasteful and irrelevant they are to 99.9 percent of Pennsylvanians.
Like over $100 million to move the Barnes art collection, and the million-dollar jazz extravaganza last month that politically benefited Democratic appropriations chairman Dwight Evans.
Instead, our so-called leaders lie, cheat and blow smoke when passing budgets.
Take our current budget. Conservatively, we are running a $1.8 billion deficit. Illegally.
Because the budget that was finally passed last year after 101 days — last in the nation — contained smoke and mirrors that would be considered criminal in the private sector.
Such as the $400 million in revenue from the tolling of Interstate 80, which didn’t materialize because the feds rejected the plan. And the $800 million that was raided from MCARE, the fund established to mitigate the skyrocketing medical malpractice costs of Pennsylvania’s doctors.
Which the courts recently ruled must be paid back.
And the woefully unrealistic revenue projections that, because of the recession and our stifling business climate, put us another $600 million to $800 million in the hole.
And the new budget just passed, which is bigger than last year’s, anticipates $850 million in federal funding which, quite simply, isn’t coming. Most experts state that, at best, the real figure will be no more than $300 million. But what’s another half-billion shortfall when you don’t have to follow the rules anyway?
Add the fact that our revenue — the amount of money taken in through taxes — is almost $3 billion less than the new budget. Only the second installment of last year’s federal stimulus money closes the gap to make it appear balanced, but after that, it’s lights out.
No more federal money. No more smoke and mirrors.
The governor and legislature can’t balance the current checkbook — not by a long shot — and they just passed a budget that increased spending yet again. All without addressing how to pay for yesterday’s programs.
In addition to being irresponsible and morally repugnant, since our children’s future is being mortgaged, it’s against the law. We’ll hear that the new budget makes cuts which will alleviate the deficit. A lie, since the numbers simply don’t add up.
We’ll hear that the new budget doesn’t raise taxes. Another lie. The state’s only prospect for the creation of thousands of long-term, high-paying jobs — extracting oil and natural gas from the Marcellus Shale fields — will be dealt a severe blow when the industry is heavily taxed in the fall.
And we heard, in Rendell’s own words, that this budget is "frugal" and, "…(it) doesn’t make things better for people…"
No, if he had his way, the budget would have been one billion dollars more than it is.
Here’s a newsflash for the stewards of the people’s money.
Having a "frugal" budget isn’t a bad thing; in fact, it should be the cornerstone of every public budget. What people do with their own money is their business, but what they do with ours is a completely different animal.
There is no such thing as "state" money. It is our hard-earned income sent to Harrisburg with a reasonable expectation that it be spent wisely — and frugally.
That hasn’t happened in years, and now it’s time to pay the piper. And for a preview of what’s to come, look no further than Greece. But by that time, Rendell will be on a beach somewhere.
The only small solace is that, despite what politicians say to the contrary, all care deeply about their legacy.
And for Ed Rendell, his will be defined by one word: Armageddon.
Chris Freind is an independent columnist and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com. Readers of his column, "Freindly Fire," hail from six continents, thirty countries and all fifty states. His work has been referenced in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, foreign newspapers, and in Dick Morris’ recent bestseller "Catastrophe."
Freind also serves as a weekly guest commentator on the Philadelphia-area talk radio show, Political Talk (WCHE 1520), and makes numerous other television and radio appearances. He can be reached at [email protected]