When The Patriot-News endorsed Tom Corbett for governor in October, we wrote, “The bottom line on his success will be how the new governor balances the budget without significant tax increases.”
It largely looks to be “Mission Accomplished” for Gov. Corbett and the Republican controlled state House and Senate on the annual budget.
Gov. Corbett is hours away from delivering on his fiscal campaign promises in his first state budget. Not only are there no tax increases, there is a real reduction in the state budget from last year. It looks likely to be about 4 percent smaller, ending up at $27.15 billion, a significant achievement in an era where costs only seem to rise.
This budget checks a lot of the right boxes that voters demanded in the last election. Beyond the headliner of no taxes, it cuts some of the so-called “waste” in government such as reducing funding for the Department of Community and Economic Development by nearly a third. DCED is responsible for many grants and loans to businesses and communities, some of which have been questionable through the years.
Of course, Gov. Corbett benefited greatly from a Republican-controlled House and Senate. The political conditions this year were about as easy as they come. If the state couldn’t deliver an on-time budget this time, it’s doubtful it could ever be done again.
But the General Assembly — or at least the Republicans — made inputs, too. Most notably, lawmakers agreed to tap into some of the $500 million-plus surplus the state has collected to soften some of the cuts.
Republican leaders also heeded the public outcry over lawmakers’ perks and reserve funds and agreed to “give back” $50 million from their reserve accounts, the legislative “trust funds” this newspaper has exposed numerous times.
At the end of day, this budget will have ramifications on Pennsylvanians with education taking the worst hit. Tuition will go up at state and state-related universities and class sizes will get larger. It will be obvious who is to blame for this.
Similarly, school districts, especially urban and rural, are feeling the pain of the K-12 budget cuts. In our own backyard, Harrisburg is laying off 214 people and closing four schools in an effort to craft a budget with a slash in state funding. It’s questionable if this is the right move.
Cuts to public welfare were expected. Long-term care funding was hit severely as well as other programs such as child care assistance that are critical to enabling mothers to work. These might prove shortsighted.
But the biggest criticism is no movement on Marcellus Shale. Once again drillers appear likely to get off the hook despite the fact that a year ago the General Assembly agreed to the framework of a severance tax and promised it would be done in 2010. It’s now June 2011 and Pennsylvania still has no tax or even “impact fee” despite the best efforts of Sen. Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson).
It remains a black mark on Pennsylvania politics. The issue is not going away. In fact, the need to deal with it continues to grow the more we learn about the potential and the problems of extracting shale gas.
Nonetheless, this week will be a victory for the governor and Republicans in the Senate and the House. For the first time since 2002, the budget will not only be done on time but it will be leaner than the past without tax increases.