During the months of what is commonly called budget season, I received several thousand messages, letters, position papers, and information packets about the state budget, state taxes, the hundreds of state programs that constitute the budget, and the many organizations and facilities that depend on state money to fund at least part of their operation.
One of the messages coming through quite clearly is that people want elected officials to be more accountable, in their decisionmaking and in their spending.
In the spirit of saving money, rather than sending out thousands of reply letters, I am reporting through e-mail the result of our deliberations, my budget vote, and the reasoning that went into it.
As always, the views you share and the information you provide are extremely helpful to me in serving you.
Perspective On The New State Budget
Over the past six months, I received a tremendous number of communications about the state budget – on matters of spending, taxes, programs, and employment levels, plus proposals for reform and suggestions for savings. The fiscal situation and the budget have been topics of discussion just about everywhere I go in the district, and will continue to be.
With the state budget being hammered out during tough economic times, and with another substantial budget deficit of nearly $1.2 billion confronting us, the discussion inside and outside the state Capitol generated conflicting views and commentary.
Many people shared my deep concerns about rising state spending levels and called for a more conservative approach to budgeting. Others worried about the impact additional cuts would have on programs they favored. Still others wanted to see spending increases, in areas ranging from education to services for the disabled, to deal with growing demand or to produce better results.
Following last year's unpopular and unproductive budget deadlock, the public was rightly insisting on a budget delivered on time. That budget also needed to be realistic, with no tax increases, actual spending reductions, and a comparably low overall spending number. The overriding goal was to protect taxpayers, but doing so in a way that would avoid too-deep cuts in the most essential state programs.
When a budget plan was arrived at that reasonably and realistically met those tests, I supported it. Even with its imperfections, this state budget better matches taxpayer interests than any in a long time.
Still, some argue that a holdout could have yielded a better budget. It was hard to see any benefit to be gained by another prolonged deadlock and late budget. There was not going to be an economic turnaround or a sudden rush of revenue to make the choices any easier.
The budget approved comes in nearly a billion dollars lower than what Governor Rendell recommended in February. That responds to the need for smaller state government and recognizes the revenue and spending problems to be encountered in the next couple of years.
Most of the lines in the budget show some reduction in funding. There are dozens of traditional programs and institutions no longer receiving state funding. For those alarmed by the growth in state spending over the past eight years, and that includes me, one of the clear implications of this budget is fewer people will be working in state government. Several of the public's suggestions for saving money made their way into this budget; many more should be considered and acted upon.
This budget is not built around an increase in state taxes. The various tax hikes the Governor pitched – including applying the state sales tax to 74 categories of products and services – were met with strong opposition from taxpayers, and received little legislative support. My view continues to be that higher taxes have unfortunate consequences: making the economic situation worse, hurting struggling families, making next year's budget problems more severe, and not helping the revenue picture all that much.
If the federal government does not come through with an additional $850 million for Medicaid reimbursement that once seemed a given, then additional spending cuts will be required to bring the budget back into balance.
A constantly growing area of state spending, raising both public and legislative concern, is corrections. This issue requires legislation changing sentencing policies to be approved before savings will be realized. The Senate passed several bills, but the House has not yet agreed to them.
The tax amnesty program I and others advocated swept up more money than projected, helping stave off any tax increase. The program was designed to encourage compliance, and succeeded in that regard. A more aggressive effort is now planned to go after those who did not make good on their overdue tax liabilities. The principle is an important one – the state should do everything possible to collect what it is owed before looking for new revenue.
If I had the chance to draw a budget, the overall spending number would be lower and there would be cuts in more places. Such a budget might pass the Senate, but it would not gain enough support in the House and surely would not be signed by this Governor. Given the strong philosophical differences over state spending and taxes, it was impossible to craft a budget that would be widely popular or that would satisfy disparate community needs.
Next year a new Administration will be in place, and many Pennsylvanians are hoping the next Governor will be more restrained in respect to spending, taxing, and borrowing.
Your questions, comments, and concerns about the new state budget are
certainly welcome. Thank you for keeping me informed on your views in respect
to the important issues we are dealing with in state government.