PA Budget Battle Proves Need for Citizen Legislature

Member Group : Nathan Shrader

If Pennsylvanians have learned anything during the 2009 budget battle, perhaps it is that the sixth straight late state budget demonstrates the dysfunctional nature of our $342 million a year legislature and the utter failure of the Rendell Administration to change Pennsylvania as it promised to do on the campaign trail in 2002.

First, Governor Rendell has seriously snubbed Pennsylvania’s four state-affiliated universities: Pennsylvania State University, University of Pittsburgh, Temple University, and Lincoln University. Rendell began by cutting all four institutions out of the Commonwealth’s application for over $42 million in federal stimulus money. He then took the knife to each under his version of the budget, claiming the state does not bear funding responsibility to these schools despite 39 years of state history proving him wrong.

The Morning Call reported on June 27 that Rendell is proposing an additional 13 percent cut to all four state-affiliated universities. Rendell wants to reduce Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance (PHEA) grants to students by $45 million and cut $7.5 million to public libraries. Despite these actions showing otherwise, the Governor claims to stand behind higher education.

The taxpaying public deserves better than such double talk.

Second, the Senate Republicans passed their budget, Senate Bill 850—largely crafted for political show—making cuts the House would never pass (they rejected it by a 103 to 95 vote on July 16). SB 850 contained almost $300 million in cuts to state hospitals and health care, $26 million in cuts that would close 35 state parks, and the near elimination of the successful Keystone Opportunity Zones (KOZ), which, according to the Philadelphia Daily News, help generate "more than $300 million in state revenues."

After rejecting the Senate’s fantasy plan, the House got in on the action on July 17, passing a $28.8 billion budget which failed to include any of the $1.3 billion required for the State System of Higher Education or student loans. They did leave open the opportunity to increase sales or income taxes or gambling expansion to fill the gap.

Despite the obvious need to cut and trim the fat hanging over the belt of state government, political realists understand that passing a slash and burn budget in one chamber while the other chamber is controlled by the opposite party is just as foolish as passing a phony budget that omits all higher education and student loan funding. These represent anything but serious efforts to solve the problem.

The taxpaying public deserves better than futile exercises in political showmanship.

Third, the Governor continues doing what he has done well for six years: scaring hardworking Pennsylvanians into backing his agenda. Several years ago he succeeded in frightening senior citizens (who just happen to be super voters) into believing that they would be booted from their homes due to escalating property taxes if his slots plan wasn’t passed. Due to Rendell’s scaremongering, Pennsylvania is on the path to becoming Atlantic City II thanks to the creation of 14 state licenses for gambling expansion.

Five years later, the likelihood of further gambling expansion is strong, Rendell was reelected, and his party has taken control of the House of Representatives. Meanwhile, seniors still face high property taxes while Pennsylvanians face an uncertain future dealing with the negative side effects of state-run gambling. Pennsylvania seniors have come up short, receiving on average a paltry $189 in property tax "relief" this year, reports the Daily News’ John Baer.

This year Rendell did his best to demonize the Senate Republican budget by again trying to scare voters senseless. This time, Rendell honed in on SB 850’s proposed $16.2 billion in cuts to the Pennsylvania State Police. Rendell estimated for Reuters on June 21 that such cuts would mean 13,000 fewer criminal arrests, 3,000 fewer DUI arrests, furloughing 800 troopers, and "allowing more sex offenders to walk our streets." "The impact would be real and disastrous and would only help criminals," he said.

Such shameful fear-mongering on the part of the Commonwealth’s Chief Executive is inexcusable. While nobody welcomes cuts to public safety, is there any reason why a budget such as SB 850 which takes the cleaver to all state agencies wouldn’t also include the State Police? Instead of an intelligent compromise on the matter, Team Rendell resorted again to extreme exaggeration in an effort to terrify Pennsylvanians into opposing the Senate plan.

The taxpaying public deserves better than feeble fear-mongering.

As both sides dig in, Harrisburg Republicans are putting their feet down, saying that they will not support any tax increase. On the other side of the fence, the Rendell Administration is calling for a 16 percent "temporary" increase in the Personal Income Tax (PIT), amounting to what former Philadelphia Tax Reform Commission Chairman Ed Schwartz claims amounts to "$5 a week more for households earning $50,000 a year."

The Governor’s budget plan is a $29 billion monstrosity depicting an administration addicted to power and control. The rejected Senate Republican plan was a $27.3 billion atrocity. The House plan is a $28.8 billion mess exposing a bloated, wasteful, clueless state legislature, which as of the 2008-2009 fiscal year had a $342.38 million operating budget.

The taxpaying public deserves better from all sides of the debate.

As options for salvaging this train wreck of a budget near exhaustion, perhaps Pennsylvanians will finally begin insisting on something they do deserve, which is a spirited debate on the necessity of this wasteful state legislature which fritters away over $342 million annually while failing to compromise and pass a budget to keep Pennsylvania’s commitments to higher education, economic development, and public safety.

It seems in all of this there is only one ray of hope: that the 2009 budget battle demonstrates why it is time for a part-time, citizen legislature that works for us, works for less, and remembers why they were elected to serve.

Nathan Shrader can be reached at [email protected] He has worked as a Legislative Aide within the Pennsylvania State Senate and as a Legislative Aide in the part-time, citizen legislature in the Commonwealth of Virginia