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Run Away! Run Away!

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By Tom Ferrick Jr.

The big news about the state budget this year was that it wasn't big news.

Unlike last year, when we went 101 days before it finally, mercifully passed, this year the legislature met the June 30th deadline. Which everyone proceeded to treat as a great accomplishment.

It goes to show that if you lower expectations enough people will applaud you just for showing up on time.

As to the document itself, no one paid much attention. When Gov. Rendell finally signed the $28 billion operating budget for state government last week, the press spent much more ink on two items in the $268 million state capital budget - money Rendell had added to partially fund libraries for the Sen. Arlen Specter and the late U.S. Rep. John Murtha.. It was like fixating on a small wart spotted on the thumb of a large and profoundly ugly ogre.

Ladies and gentleman, the wart is not the problem.  This ogre of a budget is the problem.

The irony of Ed Rendell's second term is that this expansionist Democrat has spent four years contracting government operations and programs.  The budget for 2010-2011, Rendell's last, continues that trend with a vengeance.

Since 2007-08, virtually every department and program in the Commonwealth has taken a hit - some of them serious hits. A partial list: arts and culture subsidies (-42%), adult literacy programs (-16%), Agriculture Department (-23%); Community and Economic Development (-46%), state parks and forests (-29%), Environmental Protection (-34%), Health Department (-22%); Historical and Museum Commission (-46%), state aid to local libraries (-9%), state colleges (-8%), state-related universities (-12%). 

Only a few programs were spared: Prisons (because the population keeps going up); state welfare and Medicaid payments (because of federal mandates), and the state subsidy to basic education. The last item rose three percent (to $5.4 billion) at Rendell's insistence. He was committed to being known as the education governor and darned if he wasn't successful. It's a bit like a kid whose house was wrecked by a tornado but who managed to save his favorite teddy bear.

Rendell really had no choice but to cut.  When the recession hit with a gale force in late 2008, state tax revenues tanked.  The only thing that kept the state from sinking was the infusion of about $8 billion in federal stimulus funds.

This year, Rendell tried to convince the legislature to raise taxes in order to replenish the state's Rainy Day Fund (emptied during the recession).  He rolled out a new version of the sales tax, which actually lowered the rate (to 4%), but started taxing services, such as lawyer and accountant bills.  It was a non-starter.  How about a tax on smokeless tobacco? The legislature said no. How about closing loopholes in the sales tax law dealing with payments (No, again). Taxing the natural gas now flowing from the Marcellus Shale? (Maybe later, the legislature said.)

If there was a frantic quality to these proposals it was because Rendell was frantic. He knew - in fact, everyone in Harrisburg knows - the worst is yet to come.  The next governor is likely to face a $5 billion budget deficit when he takes office - this time without any federal money available to fill the hole.

Thumbnail image for Holy-Grail-2.jpgIt is a looming crisis.  But the legislature doesn't do looming crises. It follows tradition and will not approve tax increases in an election year. Since 2010 is an election year for all 203 House members and half the 50 senators, the no-tax rule applies.

It's not as if legislators actually have any opposition.  In any give year, less than a half-dozen incumbents face real opponents. This year, for instance, 10 of the 25 state senators standing for re-election have no opponents - none - in the primary and general election..

Which raises a clinical question: When does neurosis become psychosis?

At what point does the legislature's unwillingness to deal in a real way with taxes and spending migrate from being merely irrational to a destructive form of madness?

One final medical question: Is there a clinical name for pathological cowardliness?

This year, the legislature was confronted with an admittedly difficult situation.  It had tough decisions to make. And what did it do? It went home.

It is almost surreal, even comical.  Which reminds me of the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

As you may recall, whenever the band of daffy knights was confronted with even the slightest hazard, their leader would yell: "Run away! And they would ride away.  As you may also know, they actually didn't have horses.  They mimicked riding horses and had retainers follow behind them clacking coconut shells together to mimic the sound of horse hooves. It, too, was a comical and surreal moment.

Of course, Monty Python's role in life was to make us laugh.  The legislature's role is to serve the people of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. And what do they do when confronted with a difficult situation that requires a measure of responsibility?

In the distance, I hear the sound of coconut shells clacking.

 

Tom Ferrick Jr. is senior editor of Metropolis

 

 

 

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