Why House Republicans aren't serious about Pa.'s budget deficit

Pennsylvania Budget
It’s no secret that Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai wants to be the next governor.

The games being played by House Republicans to avoid passing a budget that makes sense will work only if Pennsylvanians stop paying attention. Unfortunately, after three months of a stalemate more about politics than the state’s structural deficit, many already have.

Pennsylvania ran out of money last year and had to borrow money this year because it hasn’t matched revenue to spending. Some combination of cutting spending and increasing revenue would cause the least pain to residents, who don’t  want to see taxes go up or essential services decreased.

But House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) doesn’t seem to care. It has become apparent he won’t take any step that he believes would negatively affect his chances to become the state’s next governor.

Most of Turzai’s compadres in the House Republican caucus don’t have to worry about reelection. Pennsylvania’s gerrymandered legislative districts have virtually guaranteed their victories. But, following his lead, they oppose any revenue measure levied against their political donors, including the fracking industry. Instead, they have proposed a wide array of spending cuts and money transfers that don’t stand up to scrutiny.

For example, the House plan would transfer to the General Fund $8.3 million from the state’s settlement with Mylan Pharmaceuticals for overcharging allergy suffers who bought EpiPens for emergency use. That money is supposed to help replenish Pennsylvania’s Medicaid fund. Or do poor, sick Pennsylvanians matter to the Republicans?

Their plan also includes $1.2 million from the settlement with Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. for a data breach that released the personal information of 36,000 state residents. But that case involved 33 states that will share $5.5 million. Attorney General Josh Shapiro said Pennsylvania’s share was $249,000.

It’s as though House Republicans made up numbers to reach the $2.4 billion needed to clear the state’s deficits from last year and this one. There was no concern for the impact on agencies and programs whose funds would be raided.

Taking $30 million from the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Bank will delay needed transportation projects. Taking $25 million from the Small Business First Fund will reduce loans to small businesses. Taking $75 million from the Recycling Fund will delay the cleanup of illegal waste dumps.

Is it even legal to take money from programs with dedicated purposes, like the Keystone Recreation Park and Conservation Fund, which the Republicans want to milk for $100 million; or the Public Transportation Trust Fund, which they propose tapping for $357 million?

Given Pennsylvania’s dire straits, it must evaluate every expenditure and fund to make sure money is spent wisely. But one-time fixes and fund transfers won’t solve a long-term problem.

It’s a good bet that more gambling and some privatization of the state liquor business will become part of the solution. A progressive income tax may be a bridge too far. But taxing enterprises that should and can afford to pay more should be a given. It would be, if politics were left out of the equation.