Legislature Must Show Fiscal Constraint — Now More Than Ever

Rep. Stephen Bloom
Harrisburg Patriot-News

A strange thing happened between 2010, when Pennsylvania voters overwhelmingly said “no” to unsustainable growth in government spending, and 2012, when some legislators inexplicably started acting as if 2010 never happened.

In 2011, a majority of senators and representatives still remembered the voters’ loud and clear 2010 message of fiscal discipline, standing strong to back Gov. Tom Corbett’s historic 2011-12 budget reduction of more than $1 billion in state overspending.

Now, mere months after the governor proposed his next responsible budget, to keep chipping away at bloated expenses in 2012-13, it seems the Legislature’s collective memory of 2010 has begun to fade.

Instead of affirming the governor’s second round of urgently needed spending cuts, our Senate, by a Republican-led bipartisan vote, added a half-billion dollars of new taxpayer-funded spending to the 2012-13 budget.

As I write, my colleagues in the House appear poised to follow suit. To be fair, the increased spending is below the rate of previous years (admirably, the senators held their spending under the “Taxpayer Bill of Rights” index, which reflects the combined rates of inflation and population growth). However, the people who elected us expected more substantial cuts.

Obviously, the Senate’s proposed budget isn’t a full-scale lurch back to the former “let the good times roll” mind-set, which enabled state government costs to explode at a real rate of more than 150 percent since 1970. But now is not the time to begin tilting in that direction. It’s not as if fiscal conditions have suddenly improved. In fact, that is far from the case.

For this fiscal year, Pennsylvania remains $300 million behind in projected revenue, and our future expenses are rising fast. Even putting aside the massive issue of education funding (roughly 40 percent of our budget), four areas of state spending remain on terrifying upward trajectories: 1) public welfare obligations, which now consume even more taxpayer dollars than education; 2) pension funding liabilities, which balloon over the next several years from today’s $1 billion annual fix to more than $4 billion per year; 3) debt service, with the payments alone already topping the $1 billion per year mark; and 4) corrections costs, with an overstuffed prison population demanding more than $35,000 in spending per prisoner per year.

Meanwhile, the world economy is once again sliding into turmoil as Greece fans the flames of a new European conflagration of top-heavy cradle-to-grave welfare states. Reports of nascent bank runs by skittish Euro-citizens have filtered into the mainstream press.

China’s immense powerhouse is sputtering out, Japan just got hammered with a sovereign debt downgrade and Pennsylvania made the worldwide gloom news with our own Philadelphia Federal Reserve Manufacturing Index for May unexpectedly plunging into contraction.

I’ve been out on the hustings advocating for fiscal restraint for months now, warning anyone who will listen about the “four-alarm fire” threatening Pennsylvania’s financial house (watch my short film collaboration with the Commonwealth Foundation and Sen. John Eichelberger at RepBloom.com), but lately, I’ve been joined by louder voices.

During April, Moody’s and Fitch, two of the world’s major bond rating agencies, assigned negative outlook warnings to Pennsylvania’s debt, primarily because of our worsening public pension funding crisis. As a governing majority, Republicans in the state Legislature have a responsibility to do just that, govern. We asked for the job, promising a new era of smaller, fiscally disciplined government. In 2010, the people consented enthusiastically through the ballot box.

Citizens expect us to make the tough decisions necessary to be good stewards of their precious resources, and they expect us to say “no” to unnecessary government growth.
If the Legislature won’t accept Gov. Corbett’s proposed 2012-13 budget reductions and instead adds even modest new spending, we will lose a chance for a second year of meaningful reductions in the size and scope of state government.

To properly serve Pennsylvania’s hardworking taxpayers, passage of any such budget should be linked to permanent measures to prevent politicians from reverting back to destructive big-spending habits.

The 2012-13 budget should not become law without passage of accompanying legislation making the Taxpayer Bill of Rights index a constitutional cap on all future spending and implementing a realistic plan to swiftly reform our public pension system to solvency.

These steps will help us reduce the heavy tax burdens on our citizens and job-creating employers to restore our economic future. 

Rep. Stephen Bloom is a Republican from the 199th Legislative District in Carlisle.

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