EDITORIAL: Pennsylvania budget deal mildly encouraging, but there are reasons for concern
- Pennsylvania's $32.7 billion budget plan holds the line on taxes.
- It also increases spending for schools, prisons, social services and pensions.
- The budget does not include a Marcellus Shale severance tax or a minimum wage increase.
Maybe there is hope for bipartisanship after all.
Or maybe it's just a bunch of self-involved politicians simply acting in their own self-interests during an election year, when no one wants to anger voters.
No matter the reason, the overall outcome is mildly encouraging, even if there are numerous reasons to be concerned about some of the details.
If you haven't heard, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled Legislature wrapped up budget negotiations a week before Pennsylvania's new government fiscal year starts.
You read that correctly.
After three years of protracted partisan rancor that resulted in three straight late budgets — including the 2015 debacle, which wasn't settled until March of 2016 — Wolf and his Republican opponents actually acted like adults and performed the duties they were elected to do.
The $32.7 billion plan holds the line on taxes while increasing spending to public schools, prisons, social services and pensions. Authorized spending will be increased by about $700 million through the state's main bank account, or about 2 percent above the current year's $32 billion enacted budget.
Revenue growth of 4 percent in two straight fiscal years — perhaps the strongest two-year period since before the recession began a decade ago — helped make it happen.
Education boost: The boost in education spending was most desperately needed. State education funding was slashed $1.1 billion in 2011 under the Tom Corbett administration — a wrongheaded move that left our schools and our students in peril and put severe financial pressures on our local school districts.
Not surprisingly, the end result was repeated increased school property taxes here in York County and across the state.
Now, slowly, we are approaching state education funding levels that are close to where they were before 2011.
The state, however, is still far from where it needs to be to "achieve a fair and adequate funding system," according to the Philadelphia-based Education Law Center.
In particular, the State System of Higher Education and Pennsylvania's four state-related schools are still woefully under-funded.
Other concerns: There are several other budget issues that remain very concerning.
There is still no severance tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling. Such a tax is needed to protect our environment while also making the energy companies pay their fair share of the tax burden.
It's also disappointing that there will be no increase in the state's minimum wage of $7.25 per hour and no real property tax relief.
The state is using roughly $1 billion in one-time cash sources to balance the budget. That is just a short-term fix that kicks the toughest fiscal decisions down the road, even if a projected 4 percent growth rate is achieved.
Roughly $900 billion will be spent outside the state's main bank account to underwrite human services costs. Critics argue, justifiably, that this masks the true cost of state operations and the true increase in state spending. It's a fiscal sleight-of-hand maneuver.
Finally, much of the budget work was done behind closed doors, leaving the public in the dark about how the final deal was made. There was little real, public debate.
Refreshing sign: Still, despite those concerns, it is refreshing to see a balanced budget passed on time for once. Even better, there's no tax increase.
Their motivations may not have been completely pure, and the budget is far from perfect, but at least our elected officials acted like grown-ups, for a change.
Now let's see what happens in 2019, when the 2018 election will be just a speck in the rear-view mirror.