Wel­come to Pa., land of un­funded state bud­gets

The Community Connection - - OPINION -

Wel­come to Penn­syl­va­nia, the land of un­funded bud­gets.

You read it right. Our elected lead­ers man­aged to do some­thing they have not al­ways done in the past. They put a spend­ing plan in place by the state-man­dated dead­line of July 1.

But don’t do any back­flips or other con­tor­tions cel­e­brat­ing such a brave bit of fis­cal ma­neu­ver­ing.

Fis­cal folly might be a bet­ter de­scrip­tion.

The Leg­is­la­ture passed a bud­get. They just don’t know how they’re go­ing to pay for it. We’re not mak­ing this up. The state has a $32 bil­lion bud­get in place. But it only fore­casts $30 bil­lion in rev­enue. No, you can’t run your house­hold in this fash­ion. Peo­ple don’t like it when you can’t pay your bills. The state is al­ready get­ting dire warnings from Stan­dard & Poor’s that the Key­stone State’s dis­mal credit rat­ing could take an­other hit be­cause of “fun­da­men­tal mis­man­age­ment.”

That’s what they call it when you can’t pay your bills.

In Harrisburg, it just seems to be busi­ness as usual.

Gov. Tom Wolf couldn’t even bring him­self to put his name on this lat­est bud­get mess.

In­stead he did the Capi­tol ver­sion of hold­ing his nose, al­low­ing the bud­get to be­come law with­out his sig­na­ture.

Speak­ing of busi­ness as usual, Repub­li­cans are lin­ing up all the usual sus­pects in their hunt for new rev­enue to close the $2 bil­lion spend­ing gap.

You can pretty much count on an­other ma­jor ex­pan­sion of le­gal­ized gam­bling. And they likely will bor­row the rest.

Yes, the state that con­sis­tently has trou­ble pay­ing its bills will now dan­gle more gam­bling – in­clud­ing pos­si­ble on­line gam­ing and video ter­mi­nals in lo­cal bars and tav­erns – so that ci­ti­zens can have just as much trou­ble mak­ing ends meet.

What you won’t see is talk of any pos­si­ble tax hikes to make up for that rev­enue short­fall.

That is out of bounds with the Re­pub­li­can lead­ers in Harrisburg. And since they con­trol solid ma­jori­ties in both the House and Se­nate, don’t hold your breath wait­ing for new tax rev­enue.

That in­cludes some­thing that more and more peo­ple are now will­ing to con­sider.

That would be the longtalked about sev­er­ance tax on nat­u­ral gas drilling op­er­a­tions in the state. Penn­syl­va­nia is the only ma­jor gas-pro­duc­ing state with­out such a levy.

In­stead, un­der former Re­pub­li­can Gov. Tom Cor­bett – who pledged not to raise taxes – the state in­stead opted for an “im­pact fee.”

Un­for­tu­nately, it does not have nearly the same “im­pact” as a sev­er­ance tax. In other words, it doesn’t raise as much rev­enue.

That is not nec­es­sar­ily a unan­i­mous opin­ion among the GOP. Some Repub­li­cans have long been will­ing to con­sider a sev­er­ance tax. State Rep. Steve Bar­rar, R-160, of Up­per Chich­ester noted they have even crafted leg­is­la­tion for one, to no avail.

They view the tax on drilling as a way to pos­si­bly drill through the fis­cal log­jam. Many be­lieve if it was al­lowed to go to the floor for a vote by the full cham­ber, it would pass.

Count Bucks County Re­pub­li­can Rep. Gene DiGiro­lamo among those in fa­vor.

“I think it’s the right time to do it,” DiGiro­lamo said, adding his belief that in­dus­try in the state’s Mar­cel­lus Shale re­gions might ac­cept a “rea­son­able” tax in ex­change for some reg­u­la­tory re­lief.

“I think there would be a deal and every­body could go home.”

Ac­tu­ally, every­body al­ready went home.

House and Se­nate lead­ers sent their mem­bers home ear­lier in the week, al­beit with a no­tice they could be re­called to the Capi­tol with a six-hour no­tice.

In the mean­time, the state con­tin­ues to oper­at­ing on bor­rowed time.

They’re short on rev­enue for the fis­cal year just ended and look­ing at more red ink in the bud­get that just be­came law.

All of this de­spite some mi­nor cost-cut­ting moves in the bud­get process. And yes, the blue­print ac­tu­ally rep­re­sents an in­crease in spend­ing.

It’s time for Re­pub­li­can lead­er­ship to al­low the sev­er­ance tax is­sue to go to a full vote and let the chips fall where they may.

And we’re not talk­ing about gam­bling chips.

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