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Day Dreaming

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 By Tom Ferrick Jr.

This may come as a surprise to some, but we are going to have to elect a new governor this year.

Despite his druthers, Ed Rendell must step down. The state Constitution only allows the governor two terms, so in January he will be replaced by some other guy.

There are lots of people who want the job - two Republicans and four Democrats are running for their parties nominations in the May 18th primary. (Yes, it is only one month away.)

In brief, this is how the situation stands as Rendell leaves office.

Financially, state government is going to Hell in a handcart. It faces a potential budget deficit of $1 billion this year and $3 billion next year.  In addition, because of legal requirements to fund state employee pensions, another $3 billion to $4 billion a year will be added to the pile at the end of the new governor's first year in office. The state's operating budget currently totals about $29 billion, so we are talking about a huge hole that can be filled either with deep cuts or higher taxes or some combination of both.

To analogize, we are standing on a mountain top watching a huge storm in the distance, sweeping towards us. When it hits, it will hit with a terrible force.

In the parallel universe of our gubernatorial candidates, though, there are no clouds.  The sky is blue. The sun is shining. Children laugh and play in the park.  It is a gentle, bright spring day in Pennsylvania.

All of them have programs to increase state spending. Two of them - Democrat Dan Onorato and Republican Tom Corbett - have proposals to make major reductions in business taxes. They all rumble about rooting out "waste, inefficiencies and redundancies." They chatter about "innovative" ways to make government "smarter and more efficient."

Only one of them dares to say the "T" word and that is Democrat Joe Hoeffel, who endorses the Rendell proposal to tax natural gas and smokeless tobacco products and also proposes switching Pennsylvania from a flat to a graduated income tax. That is probably a non-starter politically and even if it wasn't would require a change in the state Constitution, a cumbersome procedure that could take four years to enact and require voter approval in a referendum. 

I credit Hoeffel with the courage to be realistic.

As to the rest of them, they must have done a bulk buy on LSD. All together now, let's sing:

What a day for a day dream,
What a day for a day dreamin' boy.
And I'm lost in a day dream,
Dreamin' 'bout my bundle of joy.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the situation continues to get worse.  The feds turned down the Rendell plan to turn Interstate 80 into a toll road, blowing a $470 million hole in transportation funding.  Last week, a state appeals court ruled that the state illegally took $800 million from a medical malpractice fund and must pay it back. The latest word on state tax revenue for this year is that it is $700 million under estimates.

Some bundle of joy.

Here is a little-known fact about state government.  It is a redistribution machine.

It takes in billions in tax revenue, then sorts and returns 77 cents of every dollar to local governments. (Education subsidies alone amount to more than half the budget.)

The other 23 cents it keeps for itself to run prisons, provide for the state police, run state forests and game lands and pay for the various regulatory and enforcement bureaucracies, such as the Department of Environmental Protection, the PUC, the Attorney General's Office, et al.

This is another way of saying that if state government has a big financial problem, your local government and local school district have a big financial problem. 

If the redistribution machine falters, slows or shuts down, the reverberations can be profound. And they will hit a terrible force.

I can understand why the gubernatorial candidates want to avoid addressing these issues. They are running for office and engaging in the standard political gambit of promising lower taxes and more spending.

We could give a cynical shrug about their state of denial, if the situation wasn't so dire. Taken to extremes, denial is a form of madness.

It does a disservice to the gravity of the state's situation - not to mention the intelligence of voters - to be having a day dream about cutting taxes and increasing spending.

As citizens of Pennsylvania, we have difficult decisions to make over the next two years over the nature and course of state government.  This is no time for the men who want to govern this state to indulge in hallucinogenic day dreams. 

Or, to quote the Lovin' Spoonful's:


I couldn't care less about the dues you say I got.
Tomorrow I'll pay the dues for dropping my load.
A pie in the face for being a sleepy bull toad.

 

My sentiments exactly.

 

Tom Ferrick Jr. is senior editor of Metropolix.

 

 

 

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