Friday, July 03, 2009

PA Budget Follies '09

(News-Herald, July 2) In our universe, “deadline” means “the point by which a piece of work must be done.” If my editors say “Your deadline is 3 am next Tuesday,” I know that I need to have my work in to them BEFORE 3am on Tuesday.
But when the suits in Harrisburg talk about the “budget deadline,” they actually mean “the point in time at which we’ll START to seriously work on completing a budget.”
The time before the deadline, the period in which you or I (silly political amateurs) would be trying to finish a real budget—well, that’s the time that the folks in Harrisburg get busy posturing and positioning for the real budget negotiations.
Negotiating is a refined art in the best of circumstances; two parties must work out a mutually satisfactory solution, and they begin this journey toward mutual understanding by sitting down and telling big fat bald-faced lies. I want to end up with one fluffy bunny, so I demand a truckload of weasels. You want me to end up with only one fluffy bunny, so you propose to kill every pet I ever have or will own. And then we begin a series of conversations to gauge how big the lies are that we are telling each other.
Political negotiating is especially entertaining because the goal is to scare not just your opponents, but also all the innocent bystanders (aka “voters”).
Our problem is simple. The amount of money we would like to spend is a much larger amount than the amount of money we expect to have available. And because we lack the federal government’s ability to make money out of air while using a time machine to pick the pockets of generations yet unborn, we have to find a way to make those two amounts Not So Different.
Everybody knows there are two solutions. 1) Take in more money. 2) Give away less money. For individuals, there are good and bad ways to do both of these. “Get a better paying job” is a more useful solution than “Knock over a Kwik-Fill” or “Take out a fraudulent mortgage” for generating income. “Stop buying things you don’t need” is preferable to “Cut back to one meal a week” or “Stop paying bills.”
Republicans have floated a budget that slashes a variety of programs. A variety of economic/community grants, support for tourism, and arts money, as well as (depending on who’s doing the analysis) state parks, environmental protection, and legal defense.
Various affected groups are already out beating the bushes and raising the alarms. I get regular e-mails of panic about cutting arts funding to zero, which trickles down just about everywhere (even into Venangoland). Other critics say cuts would close state parks, shut down health care, and blot out the sun.
Meanwhile, Smilin’ Ed is proposing a whole bunch of additional taxes on everything that moves. Oh, and “temporary” income tax hikes. Critics suggest this would make PA’s lousy business climate even worse, send rich people running to Barbados, and blot out the sun.
To the panicked screeching on both sides, add smoke and mirrors. Federal stimulus money is in there, but in some cases, such as education, maybe not really. Like when your Grandma gave you an extra five dollars and then your parents cut your allowance by five dollars that week.
To sort it all out, you need someone who is 1) knowledgeable and 2) not trying to sell you something. Good luck with that.
Short of some really creative solutions (Sell Philadelphia on e-bay) the commonwealth faces hard choices, and I’d like to blame just the dopes in Harrisburg, but part of the solution is for the electorate to suck it up. It may be unfair that the state is in this mess, but here we are. The long term health of the state may require many of us to bite some short term bullets.
Selfish solutions (“Get the money from people who aren’t me”) aren’t an answer. And both “We don’t care what you cut as long as you don’t raise taxes” and “Tax anyone and anything as long as there are no cuts” are stupid solutions.
Scare tactics won’t help. Political posturing won’t help. Serious consideration of the issues and an honest view of the state’s future would help. Now that we’ve actually entered budget season, maybe some brains and vision will emerge soon, and those Harrisburg geniuses can start doing the job they were supposed to finish weeks ago.

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