Our checks should be in the mail

Columnist : Albert Paschall

 Paybacks they say are something or another.  But the time does come when you have to fess up or face the music.  For Governor Tom Ridge and the Pennsylvania General Assembly the music stops five months from now when the state’s fiscal year ends and they are faced with the biggest problem that we’d all like to have: too much money.

     If the state’s revenue trend continues Pennsylvania is heading for a budget surplus to the tune of  $700 million.  By July Harrisburg could be faced with the heavy worry of how to dispose of more money than it’s ever had.  To those of us who only dream of those kinds of numbers spending it would be simple but getting rid of it politically is a lot easier said than done.

     A million dollars rolls off the tongue.  The average Pennsylvania family would work 37 years for a million dollars.  A million dollars buys 7 average Pennsylvania homes or about 125 cars.  $700,000,000 pays a years’ tuition for about 56,000 kids at an average state college.  But they’re only about .05% of the Commonwealth’s citizens and they don’t pay taxes and what’s more important in this equation is in large numbers they don’t vote.  So in all the special interests and political equations with 11 million citizens how do you deal with too much money?

     11,000,000 is the problem.  Sounds like a lot but start divvying up $700 million across the nation’s fourth largest state and politically it barely stretches from Erie to Philadelphia.  And the eternally electeds’ game is get the most bang for the buck.  In an election year if you are going to give away $700 million any politician worth their daily reimbursements as a legislator will want more than one grinning photo in this newspaper.

     $700 million won’t do much for any of the politically aggressive special interests.  It is about $385 for each elementary and high school student in the state.  That’ll buy about one computer for every 5 kids.  They’ll each get to use it for about an hour a week.  The education advocates will howl that it won’t be enough.   It will only buy about 466 miles of highway that’s less than .1% of the state’s roads so you won’t go far on that money.  $700 million will only buy around 70 new sewage treatment plants in Pennsylvania and spewing out all that money to only 4% of the state’s sewer authorities will cause quite a partisan stink.

     So the Governor is stuck.  At the top of his list is becoming vice president of the United States and $700 million is a damning number that is betwixt and between something and nothing in the state of Pennsylvania.  Maybe its time for the splashy numbers.  Something that will make the New York Times and get some face time on Sunday morning network TV shows.  Maybe he can convince the legislature to throw $10.4 million into each county in the state.  With a one time county lottery that gives away a million dollars Pennsylvania could have 700 new millionaires.  Every adult taxpayer in the state could go the lottery window and pick up a free number.  The counties would hold a drawing and Ridge and the General Assembly’s ratings would be higher than Regis Philbins.  Ridge would be on his way to a job on Pennsylvania Avenue before you could say “Four-more-for-Al-Gore!” and there wouldn’t be an incumbent who would lose their election.

     But with political reality there will be no Regis Philbins in Pennsylvania’s counties this year, so its payback time in Pennsylvania.  The surplus would give every citizen in Pennsylvania a rebate of about $63.  It’s not much.  But if the General Assembly would return the money where it belongs, to those that pay the big money: the state income tax, the average family would get a check for about $189.  Cold hard, guaranteed by the full faith and credit of the Commonwealth – cash.  On average maybe it’s only a week and half’s groceries, maybe a winter month’s heating bill or a day’s vacation.  But it is ours.  We paid it; they didn’t expect it, and its time to give it back.  Not in convoluted social plans, indirect subsidies or on more spending for politically motivated environmental theories.  Our checks should be in the mail.  On the off chance they come it will be someday in late October just before the election.  That’s how paybacks work and nobody works them better than Harrisburg.