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An Outbreak of Candor

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 By Tom Ferrick Jr.

There was a sudden and unexpected outbreak of candor in the gubernatorial race the other day. Attorney General Tom Corbett, the Republican candidate for governor, ambled down to Lebanon last Friday (June 11) to talk to the Chamber of Commerce and repeated his pledge of no new taxes.

That's not the news.  Corbett has "Taken the Pledge" several times.  In fact, he even talks of cutting business taxes to improve the state's economic climate.

The candor part came when Corbett said that no new taxes will mean the state will have to reduce spending and that the folks in Lebanon and elsewhere must be prepared to live with that decision.

Here is the relevant paragraph, as reported in the Harrisburg Patriot-News:

While voters are telling him they want reduced spending, Corbett said they have to be prepared for the results.  "Remember that if it affects you...Everyone is going to have to feel that cut," which he said would be "across the board," from vehicle fleets to reducing Medicaid abuse.

Thank you, Tom Corbett.

 It is the first time I have heard any gubernatorial candidate mention that there will be pain associated with aligning the state spending with state revenue.  Most of the talk during the primary was that there was nothing wrong with Pennsylvania that couldn't be solved by waving the magic wand I call WFM - savings that come from the elimination of waste, fraud and mismanagement. Voila! No more deficit.

TomCorbettDec24.jpgOf course, Corbett's candor has its limits.  He knows and those businessmen in Lebanon  should know that the budget problems can't be solved solely by cutting the state's fleet of cars (Rendell has already reduced it by 500) and cracking down on Medicaid abuse.  The problem is too big, the proposed solutions too small.

Pennsylvania faces a $1.2 billion deficit this year and that number could easily double next year. And double again the year after that.

The reasons are many, but the main ones are: an end to the billion's of federal stimulus aid that has propped up the states for the last three years; continued sluggishness in tax revenues due to the weakness of the recovery, and additional payments due to the state and school employee pension funds that will total billions.

It does add up.

The structural deficit the next governor will face in his first year in office could total $3 billion - and it easily could be higher.  That is equivalent to 10 percent of the state's $30 billion general fund budget. If Corbett decides, as he hinted, that he plans to make cuts across the board, it will mean $1 billion less for education and $800 million less for health and welfare programs, such as Medicaid and child welfare.

By deciding not to raise taxes at the state level, Corbett de facto is leaving it to local governments to either increase their taxes or make severe cuts in programs. Out of every dollar spent by state government, 72 cents is redistributed to local governments or individuals, often the most vulnerable - children, the elderly and the poor.

The schools will be hit the hardest.  Local districts are already facing a huge increase in their share of the bill for employee pensions.  On top of that, they are likely to face deep cuts the basic state subsidy, plus money for such items as special education.  The alternative will be to raise local taxes - most likely property taxes - to make up some or all of shortfall. 

Personally, I do not favor making such deep cuts in state subsidy programs, but that is beside the point.  Corbett has done us a favor by staking his position and, implicit in that, his vision for the state going forward.

And that is what this race should be about. The same with the U.S. Senate race.

 

 

This year, we have strong ideological differences among the major candidates.  Republican U.S. Senate candidate Pat Toomey is a bona fide conservative - against the health care reform bill, against the stimulus package, a fan of lower taxes and less government.  Democrat Joe Sestak is a bona fide liberal - supportive of President Obama's programs for health, taxes and federal spending.  The differences are sharp.

Corbett has staked out the conservative line on state government - get it off our backs, rely on private industry to help make the economy grow. And he was one of the state attorneys general who filed suit challenging the legality of health care bill..  Democratic Dan Onorato (though he muffles it) is in the Ed Rendell mold, a believer in activist government willing to pay a big share of education and welfare costs.

Political campaigns can quickly devolve into trivia because, as George Wallace liked to say, there is not a dime's worth of different between the candidates for the major parties.

This year in Pennsylvania it could be different.  This year we could end up with a genuine discussion over what kind of state we want this to be.

A little candor can go a long way.

 

Tom Ferrick Jr. is senior editor of Metropolis.

 

 

 

 

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