Let court decide if Pa. officials broke the law with an unbalanced budget

Pennsylvania Budget
For for two consecutive years, the General Assembly ignored the Constitution and passed spending plans without the revenue to pay for them, says Matthew J. Brouillette.

In the 1993 film The Firm, a young lawyer played by Tom Cruise famously asks his legal mentor how far he wants the law bent. “As far as you can without breaking it,” is the cynical reply.

When it comes to Pennsylvania’s constitutional requirement for a balanced budget, our elected officials have taken this ethically challenged approach a step further.

Gov. Wolf and the Assembly haven’t just bent the law — they’ve flat-out broken it.

Our state constitution requires a balanced budget, stating, “Operating budget appropriations made by the General Assembly shall not exceed the actual and estimated revenues and surplus available in the same fiscal year” (Article VIII, Section 13).

In other words, lawmakers can’t spend more than they expect to take in. But for two consecutive years, the Assembly has ignored the constitution and passed spending plans without the revenue to pay for them.

State law similarly requires: “The governor shall item veto any part of any appropriation bill that causes total appropriations to exceed the official estimate plus any unappropriated surplus.” And Wolf’s own Office of the Budget echoes: “If the combined appropriations passed by the legislature exceed the revenue estimates, the governor has the authority and duty either to veto entire appropriation bills or to reduce the amount of appropriations in order to produce a budget that is in balance with revenues.”

The law clearly gives the governor the “authority” and “duty” to use his veto pen to ensure the budget balances. But for two consecutive years, Wolf has ignored the law and allowed unfunded spending plans to become law.

It’s little wonder the Inquirer Editorial Board recently asked: “How can that even be legal? Is it really a budget if the spending plan does not include the money to fund it? If the courts have not been asked to answer that question, they should be. There should be no more repeats of this farce that threatens schools, hospitals, and other agencies that depend on state funding to survive.”

I couldn’t agree more. The fact is, when lawmakers become lawbreakers, all Pennsylvanians suffer.

That’s why I, along with two other plaintiffs, have filed a lawsuit in Commonwealth Court asking the court to enforce the constitution and state law. Wolf, the  Assembly, state Treasurer Joe Torsella, and Auditor General Eugene DePasquale all acted illegally. The question is, will we protect Pennsylvanians by holding elected officials accountable to the constitution and the law?

When the law is unenforced, it soon becomes meaningless. Last fiscal year, our elected officials ignored the balanced budget mandate and ran up a $1.5 billion budget deficit. This year, they are again spending money we don’t have.

The good news is that our state courts can stop this lawlessness.

The remedies are simple: Prevent the governor and Assembly from spending more than they take in and stop the treasurer and auditor general from enabling this unconstitutional deficit spending.

Every day that our unbalanced, unconstitutional budget stands unchallenged, Pennsylvanians bear the burden. In just the first two months of the current fiscal year, taxpayers were forced to pay $141,000 in interest to the state Treasury after Harrisburg unlawfully borrowed money to make ends meet. The longer this continues, the more taxpayers will suffer.

Some claim the answer is more tax revenue. Yet the law requires that spending be kept in line with revenue, not vice versa. Past tax increases have not prevented Wolf and the Assembly from ignoring the law and spending beyond the state’s means. Indeed, state spending in the General Fund only (which makes up about 40 percent of state spending) has increased by nearly $3 billion over the last three years — more than the spending increases of the previous eight years combined.

On taking office, Wolf and members of the  Assembly took the following oath: “I do solemnly swear that I will support, obey and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of this Commonwealth and that I will discharge the duties of my office with fidelity.”

As taxpayers await their day in court, our elected officials would do well to recall their oath and to remember that, in Pennsylvania, no one is above the law.

Matthew J. Brouillette is president and CEO of Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs. matt@thecommonwealthpartners.com

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