Saturday, July 12, 2014

OUR OPINION: PA. GOVERNOR’S PRIORITIES Corbett budget plan contains red flags

February 05. 2014 11:26PM
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If the goal of Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget proposal Tuesday was to provide state residents with a chipper no-new-taxes pledge before he hits the campaign trail in his quest for re-election, mission accomplished.

If, however, he intended to put the state on solid footing, by using solid numbers, and to adequately address some of its stickiest issues, well, it looks as if this $29.4 billion plan might fall short.

It relies, in part, on infusions of cash that are by no means guaranteed, in some cases not yet even approved. For example, his suggested revisions to the Medicaid program require an OK from the federal government.

The budget plan also postpones until later years the state’s full contribution to pension retirement funds for state and public school employees, which some people will characterize as kicking the can down Pennsylvania’s potholed road. The administration contends the move, in conjunction with other changes to the pension system, will allow school districts to save $130 million next year and ultimately help to solve the crisis.

Beyond those big issues, area residents rightfully should raise these questions when evaluating the spending plan’s adequacy.

• Is the state becoming overly reliant on gambling revenue? The Corbett administration reportedly plans to add to the state Lottery a fast-paced, and some people say addictive, game called keno. The state’s first casino, Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs in Plains Township, already offers table games and slot machines, though, interestingly, the latter brought in less money last year than in 2012. And the Legislature recently approved a bill allowing small games of chance in bars and restaurants.

• What about property tax reform? Despite popular support among some Luzerne County homeowners, this issue apparently isn’t at the forefront of Corbett’s agenda.

• Are tax breaks for businesses bringing jobs to Northeastern Pennsylvania? Corbett’s proposed budget would cut business taxes for the fourth consecutive year. This region’s jobless rate has been dropping since the recession’s wrath, but still stood at the end of 2013 at an unreasonably high 8.7 percent, according to data released this week.

• Is Corbett’s coziness with the natural gas industry in your best interest? His budget plan for 2014-15 includes new revenue from gas extracted from below certain state forests and parks — presumably public assets to be protected in perpetuity. Instead, it appears drillers will be granted access and the royalties paid to Pennsylvania will be put to short-term use, flowing into the state’s general fund.

• Is the Republican governor’s economic outlook realistic? Sharon Ward, director of the left-leaning Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, issued a statement about Corbett’s tentative budget, describing it as “a more hopeful view of the state’s fiscal health than is warranted by the facts.”

“The commonwealth is not enjoying the robust revenue surpluses that many other states are,” Ward noted, “and its revenue projections for 2015-16 and beyond are optimistic, masking fiscal troubles ahead.”

The governor’s annual spending blueprint, as usual, offers a mixed bag of “wins” and “losses” for special-interest groups. Among those people most encouraged by possible funding increases in the next fiscal year are social service providers and public school advocates, especially those involved in special education. Luzerne County schools stand to gain $6.8 million over the prior year, according to an early analysis.

Corbett’s newly released budget plan will be reviewed and revised by state lawmakers in the weeks ahead, presumably resulting in the passage of a final budget before June 30.

As always, you should judge a state budget’s merits not on what’s best for you today and tomorrow, but what’s good for the commonwealth in the years and decades ahead. Contact your elected leaders soon and voice your views, pro and con, on Corbett’s budget priorities.

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