More bad marks for Pennsylvania finances

3 x 2 Pa. State House legislators
Pa. legislature meets in Harrisburg at the State House.

Sometimes the best way to make things stick is to just keep pounding.

With that in mind, allow me another couple of hits on Harrisburg politics, greed, budget madness, and abuse of your tax dollars.

Two things just popped up.

First, in a new analysis this week, Pennsylvania gets a “D” for fiscal management; it has a financial hole so deep that paying it off would cost each taxpayer $16,800.

That’s bad. But the trend is worse. Our taxpayer burden has more than doubled since 2009, contributing to an overall low-down national ranking of 38th among states.

This is from Truth in Accounting, a nonpartisan, nonprofit, Chicago-based analytics group founded in 2002 that studies every state.

Its findings are based on each state’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR), an audit of fiscal conditions that’s deemed far more reliable (read: honest) than annual state budgets.

“We don’t even analyze budgets,” says Truth in Accounting CEO Shelia Weinberg. “Budgets are calculated according to political math.”

That’s a nice way of saying what I usually say: Our budgets are phony-baloney.

Pennsylvania’s latest CAFR is for the fiscal year ended last June and was delivered to Gov. Wolf in December. It’s a joint state/independent audit for which you paid the national firm CliftonLarsonAllen a tidy $684,000.

You’ve maybe heard wailings about a $2 billion to $3 billion state deficit?

Well, using CAFR findings, the Truth in Accounting analysis puts the state’s unpaid bills and real fiscal hole at $74.2 billion, including non-capital project bond obligations, pension debt, and retiree health-care costs.

A request for response from Wolf’s budget folks brought this from a Wolf spokesman: “The debt cited in this analysis is created by decisions made in the past dating to the 1990s. Gov. Wolf has taken steps to pay down these debts, including making the actuarial required payments to the pension systems which will eliminate the pension debt over the next 30 years.”

I’d note that since our state constitution mandates balanced budgets, our taxpayer burden should be zero.

But then most states pay no attention to balanced-budget mandates. Past reports from Truth in Accounting show 40 states passing budgets without enough money to pay their bills (New Jersey’s rated worst).

States use accounting tricks such as hiding real costs of compensation, pension and health-care benefits, or counting borrowed money as revenue.

And Pennsylvania is famous for games with its Motor License Fund, plugging in overly optimistic or ultimately nonexistent revenue – think new casino licenses, internet gaming, etc. – all to “balance” its budgets.

What this means, Weinberg tells me, is “elected officials haven’t given the public enough information.” And, she says, that’s bad for democracy.

It’s also bad for bond ratings, overall economic growth, and it buries the truth.

If only those in power, leaders in both parties, managed and protected your tax dollars with the same attention they manage and protect their perks.

This gets me to thing two.

State Auditor General Gene DePasquale last week wrote to Republican and Democratic leaders offering a comprehensive legislative audit “to help you provide the maximum level of transparency and openness to taxpayers,” pretending, I suppose, legislative leaders have any interest in that.

At a news conference, he mentioned focusing on lawmakers’ $118 million reserve accounts (or big, fat slush fund), which total $18 million more than the prior year at a time the state cries fiscal crisis.

The slush fund is roughly a third of the legislature’s $300 million budget. The entire state reserve fund for a $32 billion budget is just $245,000.

Immediate reported reaction from Republican and Democratic spokesmen to DePasquale’s offer was, basically, no thanks.

DePasquale, according to his office, has gotten no official response.

So it goes: governance without openness in a state with futile fiscal management.