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PA budget-process reform proposal

By Pennsylvania State Senator Lisa Baker
March 16, 2016

A serious, nasty, and debilitating budget deadlock that boils over into a second calendar year should be the catalyst for fundamental reforms of the state budget process. People argue about everything these days, but that assertion is hard to refute.

The entrenched political, philosophical, and regional differences found across Pennsylvania mean the state budget process is unlikely to ever be straightforward and harmonious. Throw in negative economic and fiscal factors and the odds are against a healthy budget surplus easing the discord soon.... *

Fortunately, legislators have the power to fix this broken process, and just need to find the will.

Not long ago, taxpayers and some legislators said enough is enough. In 2009, the impasse over Gov. Rendell’s next-to-last state budget went past the 100-day mark. Unhappiness in local communities dictated that substantial repairs to the state budget process were needed.

Why no action then? Tom Corbett’s ability to deliver on-time budgets seemed to subtract from the sense of urgency. The arguments over the content of those budgets intensified, but at least the timetable was on track.

The current budget standoff dwarfs its predecessors in length and depth and disruption.... [It has produced] disruption for service providers, hardship for many who depend on state services, annoyance for taxpayers, diminished citizen confidence, suspended development projects and a sharp drop in financial standing.

The most effective remedy is to continue state funding when a new budget is not approved by July 1. Keep running the state under the old budget. To prevent overspending, set the funding rate at 80%, leaving room for deciding the ultimate spending and taxing levels. It is short enough of needs that the incentive remains for adoption of a full state budget.... This step reduces the potential for a bad budget done out of desperation. Put this carry-forward budget requirement in the state Constitution, so it is not ignored or suspended, as a law can be.

Complementary legislation sets a timeline for concrete steps legislators must take between the budget address and the budget deadline, to help compel action and avoid the recalcitrance that contributed to the 2009 deadlock. These proposals are essential, and additional reform measures advanced by other legislators could easily be folded in....