Pennsylvania State Budget
Today, credit rating agency Moody’s downgraded Pennsylvania’s general obligation bond rating from Aa2 to Aa3, citing the state’s use of one-time budgetary stop-gap measures and the continued underfunding of public pensions. This marks the third credit downgrade from ratings agencies in as many years.
A contentious budget season has officially ended after Governor Corbett signed a $29 billion appropriations bill into law. But is it fiscally responsible? And what’s holding up reforms on the major issues, like pension reform, facing taxpayers across the state?
Yesterday, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives advanced a no-tax-increase budget bill. Crucially, this bill addresses funding gaps without relying on more revenue from Pennsylvanians already shouldering the 10th highest tax burden in the country.
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We at the Commonwealth Foundation are pleased to welcome State Treasurer Rob McCord to the fight for fiscal restraint.
McCord, along with Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, held a press conference today to raise concerns about state finances. While DePasquale in his role as Auditor General is regularly fighting waste and abuse, such as his audit of Scranton's failing pension plan, this seems to be a first for McCord. The impetus is the state needs to borrow money from the Treasury to pay its bills until taxes roll in.
This is a real concern, but this is far from the first time the state has been in this fix. In 2009 and 2010, Pennsylvania issued "tax anticipation notes"—borrowing funds with interest until enough tax revenue comes in to pay them off. But McCord issued no warning shot then. He simply signed onto the bond issue.
In contrast, the Commonwealth Foundation has been sounding the alarm for years about the state's fiscal health, noting the "Four Alarm Fire" facing our commonwealth, and the frequent bond downgrades we are experiencing thanks to a pension crisis and excessive debt. As we've noted, this problem has been caused by seven consecutive years of spending more than revenue.
Nonetheless, we welcome Treasurer McCord in the fight for fiscal restraint. The treasurer noted, "the state's true financial condition is even worse than it appears because Pennsylvania has papered over its problems by draining other funds to balance the last several budgets."
In other words, this is a long-standing problem caused by decades of excessive spending. We have to put our fiscal house in order.
One good start is the Taxpayer Protection Act, which passed the Senate Finance Committee today. Click here for our fact sheet on that important issue.
Lawmakers should also tackle the critical issue of pension reform. And recent House efforts to reduce the "debt ceiling" on the RACP program—which is essentially borrowing for corporate welfare projects—would be a major step towards fiscal sanity.
Readers of PolicyBlog already know that Pennsylvania education spending is at a record high, that state funding to school districts for pension costs is skyrocketing, and that school district spending, revenues and reserve funds are at all-time highs.
That should be enough to stop government union leaders from repeating the $1 billion cut lie...but they're still at it. In fact, a new lie to defend the original lie has emerged.
Talking to Capitolwire (paywall), PSEA spokesman Wythe Keever claims, "No previous administration cited pension funding in order to boost their claims about K-12 funding."
It is preposterous to think that the cost of teachers' pensions isn't part of the cost of education, or that state aid to school districts for pension costs isn't part of state aid to school districts.
Of course, this is far from the first lie Wythe Keever has been caught in.
As we recently wrote, Mr. Keever has denied that union dues are used for any sort of political activity—even as his employer, the PSEA, told its members (as required by law) that 12 percent of their dues go to politics.
Wythe Keever also once denied to a reporter that the PSEA was behind mysterious ads claiming school choice would require a tax hike. We later uncovered that the PSEA spent $575,000 from union dues to fund those ads.
That a spokeman for PSEA consistently resorts to outright, provable lies is a telling commentary on how far government union executives are willing to go to advance their policy agenda.
House Majority Leader Mike Turzai took to the podium last week, providing press and spectators his response to the Governor’s criticisms, blue-line budget reductions, and House priorities.
We applaud Rep. Turzai for making paycheck protection among the important issues discussed, stating:
I know there is controversy in respects to the paycheck protection issues, but I think this is important. With respect to the state [union] contracts, at that bargaining table you could've negotiated out the ability to collect political contributions or the ability to collect union dues.
Despite the sparring between the Governor and state lawmakers, many public officials were united in their belief that public-sector unions are blocking desperately needed pension reform. As Governor Corbett noted, "The out-of-touch, paid union leadership of PSEA sent out an email blast, taking credit for blocking [pensions]. We need to have the public-sector teachers' union in Philadelphia step up and make concessions."
Senator John Eichelberger agreed saying, "When the PSEA brags about stopping reform to the pension system and promotes the unethical practice of having the government collect their political funding, something needs to change."
State Representative Jerry Knowles adds, "The truth is, common sense can't even be heard above the voices of the union leaders and special interests. Union leaders are controlling Harrisburg through the heavy handed tactics of their highly paid thugs and a bottomless pit of money they give to Democrats and a group of liberal Republicans."
Unions aren't just opposed to pension reform; they are blocking a host of needed reforms. Franklin and Marshall College political science professor Terry Madonna explains the union conundrum well in the context of teacher seniority reform,
The problem is, Pennsylvania public unions, particularly the teachers unions, are very powerful, and they have a lot of even Republican support. Now, they could pick up some Democrats, but Democrats in Pennsylvania are often union-backed. I think it’ll be very tough to move that legislation.
The stage is set to end the collection of union political money with taxpayer resources. It's time to restore fairness to the political process in Pennsylvania.
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The Commonwealth Foundation is Pennsylvania's free-market think tank. The Commonwealth Foundation crafts free-market policies, convinces Pennsylvanians of their benefits, and counters attacks on liberty.