The legislative strategy that resulted in passage of a $28.3 billion state budget for Pennsylvania resembles a house built of straw.

On the outside, it may appear adequate to hold together, but a strong wind can knock it down. From the legislators' point of view, it's meant to hold together just long enough to get them re-elected.

The budget contains positive spending proposals, most notably the largest increase in education spending since 1991. The $274 million increase in public schools support was a much needed boost, particularly for areas... where a faltering tax base yields less money for schools than in more affluent areas.

The school spending plan proposed by Gov. Ed Rendell and approved by the Legislature goes a long way toward leveling the playing field in public education, a goal of last year's costing-out study that was the first step in devising a formula tying school spending to educational needs.

The budget also includes money for repair and rebuilding of bridges, dams, water and sewer systems as critical upgrades of the commonwealth infrastructure.

But where the budget falls short is in the revenue projections that should match expenditures. Even Rendell's advisors admit the economy is not recovering as was originally thought. The question still unanswered is how much worse it will get before it gets better.

Some Senate officials are predicting a $1 billion deficit in the next 12 months.

If that happens, lawmakers and the governor will have to consider cuts or a tax increase, either of which would be highly unpopular.

But no matter. By that time, legislators up for re-election will have already survived Nov. 4, and Rendell will be more than halfway through his second term.

Not much harm a deficit can do them.

This budget, for all its positive result, was built on a sham. Budget negotiators tapped surpluses and postponed certain payments to free up more than $500 million that helped avert deeper spending cuts.

While Rendell and budget proponents say the plan is built on economic factors that are stronger in Pennsylvania than in other states, those strong sources of revenue are tanking, meaning that the gap between Pennsylvania's newly approved spending figure and its tax collections could be widening.

And conventional wisdom says that using one-time cash grabs -- such as scrapping a $138 million statutory transfer of money into the state's "rainy day" budgetary reserve -- simply delays a need to cut spending or raise taxes to balance the budget, wrote Marc Levy of The Associated Press in an analysis last week.

The process, like so much in Harrisburg, smacks of an attempt to look good to win votes instead of a well-thought-out strategy to improve conditions in this commonwealth.

The budget approved last week offered the promise of some good things, but they will come with a price.

We suggest that price should be levied against legislators by holding them accountable at the polls. After all, if business continues as usual in Harrisburg, the citizens will be paying later.

-- The Mercury, Pottstown

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