The Budget Negotiating Table

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Over the last seven months, the public has heard from both sides of this budget debate. Political pundits, elected officials and special interest groups have all done their best to give their perspective. Perhaps we have not heard from the most important side of the debate – the hard-working men and women of Pennsylvania.

The current budget standoff has been defined by entrenched perspectives on three issues: raising taxes and spending, pension reform, and liquor privatization.

The political climate, both here in Pennsylvania and nationally, has been reduced to gridlock and the public is justifiably frustrated. From the outside looking in, whether or not a person is directly or indirectly impacted by government, the very fact that there is no budget is viewed by the voting public as elected officials not doing their job.

Little, however, has been mentioned that the General Assembly DID send Gov. Tom Wolf several budgets. The last of which he signed after vetoing roughly one-fifth of the funding. Most of the funding he vetoed was slated to fund schools with an additional $400 million above what the state provided last year. We need to ask ourselves – why would the governor veto this funding?

Pennsylvanians deserve their elected officials to collectively represent their interests and find a solution to this budget impasse despite the divided government which they elected. We have a deeply ideological, liberal governor in Tom Wolf. Yet, we also have a Republican-controlled legislature that is comprised of dozens of political entrepreneurs – lawmakers who won their elections due to their own hard work rather than the party hierarchy or leadership. What should a compromise look like? How would you run state government differently? And, what things would you be satisfied with changing in order to pay more in taxes?

The current budget standoff has been marked by the illusion that a compromise to raise taxes can be reached in the Legislature simply by enacting two policy changes that the public either outright expects or heavily favors with pension reform and liquor privatization. The governor can certainly claim that he has compromised by "downsizing" his tax plan from $4.7 billion to $1.3 billion, but any tax increase flies directly against the will of the majority of the Legislature and the voting public that we were elected to represent.

The dichotomy before us essentially boils down to competing interests. The governor has repeatedly announced publicly that he will not sign a budget that does not raise taxes and spend more. In order for the Legislature to agree to the governor’s terms, more things about state government NEED to change. More policy changes must be put on the negotiating table.

Our tax system is designed so that, as the economy grows, the state receives more revenue. As people make more in their paychecks, they pay more income tax. As people spend more, they pay more in sales tax. Making the argument to raise taxes is advocating that the government should grow faster than the private economy.

Here are a few changes for the public to think about.

Our state’s expenditures ARE slated to grow faster than our revenue, which means that our state government IS growing faster than the economy. Changing this growth in spending MUST be placed on the negotiating table.

K-12 education is the largest and fastest-growing area of our budget. Moreover, employee salaries and benefits represent one of the largest cost drivers in this state. Legislative leaders and the governor should place policy changes on the table that allow those costs to be controlled better moving forward in order to make a budget deal possible.

School districts are given almost no management rights over school district employees. That needs to change.

State agencies are allowed to operate with limited or no performance expectations for its workforce OR mandated to do more with less. That needs to change.

The public is saddled with increased costs to all building projects with procurement rules and prevailing wage. That needs to change.

The very special interest groups that are paying for the millions of dollars worth of campaign-style ads about the budget are having that money collected by the state payroll system, funneled through various third-party groups, and used to lobby lawmakers to raise taxes. That is correct. Taxpayers pay to collect the money that is then used to pay for commercials and mailers to lobby lawmakers to raise your taxes to give more money to state employees. That needs to change.

We have the opportunity to not only resolve this current budget mess but to also put Pennsylvania on solid ground financially moving forward. A budget deal today that increases taxes in exchange for light reforms to our pension system and privatizing the liquor stores may look good in today’s headlines but it doesn’t solve the root of the problem. In fact, it sets up the public to have this fight again, very soon.

As the budget discussions move forward, shouldn’t we look to the future and be visionary for what Pennsylvania can be to the next generation rather than being narrowly focused on what the balance sheet looks like today?

I, for one, firmly believe that we need to put our state on a more sustainable path financially. Raising taxes just to subsidize the continued growth in government is the status quo. Please join me in having your voice heard in this debate.