OPED: Wagner: Business as usual has to change
Harrisburg has a spending problem, not a revenue problem. How many times have I made that statement in the last two years? I could probably do some back-of-the-napkin math to calculate an estimate, but let’s just say too many. Regardless, I will continue saying it until something changes with how our state government budgets your money.
On June 29 the legislature approved a $31.53 billion spending plan, which increased spending by $1.406 billion or 4.7 percent. Once it was determined how much to spend, it was time to figure out how to pay for it. Is that how you budget in your household? That certainly isn’t how I budget for my businesses.
I realize no one wanted a repeat of last year’s budget impasse. However, I have stood firm on my promise not to vote for a tax-and-spend budget, and that is exactly what we have, yet again.
The revenue package for this year’s budget, contained in House Bill 1198, calls for $600 million in new taxes, including a $1-per-pack cigarette tax increase, taxes on tobacco and e-cigarettes, a new sales tax on digital downloads such as books and apps, and an expansion of the income tax to lottery winnings.
One-time revenues from fund transfers are also heavily relied on. Unfortunately, transfers from the $4.3 billion that schools have in their reserve funds is not one of them. Instead, Pittsburgh School District, which a recent audit found to have a $129 million surplus, is getting an increase of more than $3 million in this year’s budget.
I am tired of this continued nonsense in Harrisburg. Fortunately, I am not the only one in the legislature who wants true, meaningful reform of the way we do business. HB 1198 passed the Senate by a slim six-vote margin of 28-22. Seventeen Republicans and five Democrats voted against the plan.
State Rep. Seth Grove and I have also teamed up to lead the Taxpayers’ Caucus and identify ways to save the commonwealth an estimated $3 billion, which we outlined in a recent report. Many of the concepts are not necessarily new, but the report serves as a compilation of cost-saving ideas, so that we can begin to address Harrisburg’s out-of-control spending and everyone can see exactly how we are able to do so.
Nearly $1 billion in savings alone could be realized through changes in programs under the jurisdiction of the Department of Human Services, such as tort reform, Medicaid expansion and preventing welfare benefits from going to recipients who have moved out of Pennsylvania.
The Taxpayers’ Caucus report also recommended a tax amnesty program, which was ultimately part of HB 1198, the revenue bill passed as part of the budget. This is an opportunity for those who owe state taxes to pay and avoid penalties. The amnesty program is anticipated to result in $150 million in revenue for the state.
In addition to the major cost-savers, such as pension reform and liquor privatization, we have also identified $319 million that could be realized from lapsed funding — the amount leftover at the end of the year – and $159 million from reforming state workers’ healthcare. Cost-saving ideas from Gov. Tom Wolf and the auditor general were also included in our report — $159 million through the governor’s GO-TIME initiatives and $167 million identified through the auditor general’s audits.
Additionally, state Sen. Bob Mensch recently introduced legislation that I have co-sponsored, which calls for performance based budgeting. Senate Bill 1341 would require state departments and agencies to justify all budgetary requests — for existing and proposed programs — starting with dollar one. This is a standard process for budgeting in the private sector.
As taxpayers, you deserve to know that your money is being spent in a manner that produces valuable results. You also deserve a break from paying more and more taxes for a state government that only knows how to increase spending. This is the difference between the cost-saving initiatives put forth by the Taxpayers’ Caucus and Gov. Wolf. We identified savings so Pennsylvania can regain its financial footing, while the governor views this money as a way to pay for his grand ideas.
The entire way of doing business in Harrisburg has to change, and I am here to make certain it does. In order to do so, members of the legislature are going to have to make difficult decisions. Special interest groups are going to have to accept that they are not always going to get their way. And state departments and agencies are going to have to demonstrate the value and success of their programs. But we cannot continue down the path we are on, and we certainly cannot continue using the longtime slogan of our state government — “We’ve always done it this way.”
— Sen. Scott Wagner represents residents of York County's 28th District.