Have you been following the budget battle in Harrisburg? I don’t blame you if you haven’t, because really it’s lovely weather and who wants to read about deficits and taxes when the sun is out?
For those of you who have been engaged elsewhere, here’s a recap: As of July 1 Pennsylvania doesn’t have a budget, which is against the state constitution, by the way. No budget should mean that all state business has come to a complete halt. But of course, it doesn’t mean that at all because we’re talking about the government not reality. Instead, in government-land, the state is running exactly as it was on June 30 and we have a deadlock between Democrat Gov. Ed Rendell and the Republican-controlled state senate.
The two sides will need to come to terms for a new budget to be passed. The problem is that because of the recession, this year Harrisburg collected a lot less in taxes (the government-land term is “revenue”) than expected — some $3.26 billion less than expected. And now the governor has a huge hole to plug. Mr. Rendell is willing to cut his $27 billion budget some but he also wants to raise taxes some. Actually, he wants to cut a little and tax a lot. In 2008, Pennsylvania had the 11th highest state and local tax burden in the country but this governor would like to increase the burden by a further 16 percent.
Republicans, on the other hand, want to cut the budget and not raise taxes at all. The problem is they don’t control the legislature, which means that some compromise will have to be reached. So here’s a suggestion from reality-land for everyone involved in government-land: Live within your means.
This is a radical concept for government-land but one that is easily understandable to many of us who live in reality-land. It means that when you have less money to spend, you spend less.
State Sen. Jay Costa (D-Forest Hills), doesn’t necessarily agree. He believes in making some budget cuts but “if it got a point in time where we were not able to make ends meet [my wife and I] would go out and get another job. That’s what [the government in Harrisburg] is doing …You go out and find other revenues. We are looking for new revenues.” But remember this is government-land and in that universe, “getting another job” means creating another tax. Sen. Costa favors lots of new taxes like increasing the tobacco tax and instituting a smokeless tobacco tax.
Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Squirrel Hill) feels sure that any compromise on the budget is going to be tough because it will include severe cuts. “Everybody will feel the pain, nobody is exempt,” he said during our phone interview. But he agrees with the governor that raising taxes is necessary. So cuts will affect some people but more taxes will be endured by all.
What about raising money in other ways like selling some government assets? How about Gov. Rendell’s proposal to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike? Sen. Costa says he’s against it, as is Rep. Frankel.
The sale of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, which could raise as much as $1.7 billion, is another possibility. Costa rejects that idea saying the LCB “is a revenue maker for us.” Frankel would support the sale, but to his credit, admits he can say that without fear of ever having to actually cast a vote on the subject.
Former Gov. Dick Thornburgh, who tried to push this idea through all the way back in 1983, agrees. He told the Patriot News, “it would take some courageous leadership to stare down [the forces wanting to keep the current system] something I do not see in the commonwealth today.” That goes for the political courage to make really hard choices about cutting the budget without raising taxes.
After all, we’re talking about government-land not reality-land.
(Abby Wisse Schachter, a Pittsburgh-based columnist, can be reached online at firstname.lastname@example.org.)