Auditor general stresses impact of impasse, need for resolution
At a Wednesday meeting with The York Dispatch editorial board, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale aired his concerns over the effect the state budget impasse is having on Pennsylvanians and stressed the need for state government to work together to find a solution.
"There are now real-life concerns," the auditor general said. "Families are impacted — kids."
County governments and school districts will need to dip into their reserves or borrow money, he said. If the state doesn't pass a budget by Thursday, he said, school districts might have to borrow about $500 million for expenses usually covered by state funds. If it goes past Nov. 1, estimates say they might have to borrow about $1 billion, and that number will continue to climb.
If the impasse persists past Nov. 1, a possibility DePasquale thinks is likely, he said some school districts could have to consider cutting back on basic services, such as transportation.
The more loans a district takes out, the more its credit rating drops. For many of Pennsylvania's schools, the idea of borrowing money is a touchy proposition: DePasquale said the state comprises one quarter of all the school districts in the nation that have junk-bond status.
Hurting for funds: York County as a whole has been hit hard by the impasse.
"To date, we've been withholding some payments to vendors," county Commissioner Doug Hoke said Wednesday.
Agencies such as York County's Office of Children, Youth and Families have been hurt by the impasse. For weeks the agency has been unable to pay service providers such as the York County Children's Advocacy Center, which looks into allegations of child abuse and neglect.
The county is using reserve funds to pay some expenses usually covered by the state and looking at taking out a line of credit, probably sometime in the next three weeks, Hoke said.
The county will be reimbursed once a budget is passed, except for interest on loans and fees associated with borrowing.
"We don't want to have to (borrow money)," President Commissioner Steve Chronister said.
"I had a press conference Monday to suggest mediation: With partisan politics, I think that's probably the best way for them to do it," he said. Chronister is concerned that lack of state funds will "reduce or stop services that people really need."
Pointing fingers: DePasquale voiced his frustration with attitudes in Harrisburg.
"They need to worry less about who's to blame than how to fix it," he said. "The blame can be shared by many. Anyone in state government is kidding themselves if they think they're not to blame."
The auditor general said he believes the lack of cooperation across the aisle in state government follows a larger national trend of sharper partisan divisions, which is largely because of gerrymandering.
But "unlike the federal government," he said, "the state has to come up with a solution because the Constitution requires a balanced budget."
There's a legal argument that by not passing a budget, the state government is in violation of the Pennsylvania Constitution in two ways, he said: by stretching the last fiscal year past June 30 and by failing to provide a thorough and efficient school system.
On Tuesday, when DePasquale held a news conference to talk about the effects of the impasse on school districts, State Sen. Scott Wagner raised his hand. "He was the only nonmedia person there" and didn't really have a question, the auditor general said.
"He said something to the effect of, 'You don't have on your chart here who's to blame,' and then pointed to the governor's office," DePasquale said.
Wagner's outburst wasn't out of character, DePasquale said, and it reflects the current mood in state government.
"There's a whole lot of people who are frustrated right now," DePasquale said. "To not express that frustration would be lying."
— Reach Julia Scheib at email@example.com.