Pennsylvania State Budget
In 2013, I opened my first business. I’d overcome many challenges and assumed some gut-wrenching risks to get there, but I did it—and I was proud. But less than three years later, my business—my dream—is on the brink of shutting down because state government is taxing it to death.
The 2016-17 budget remains unbalanced. Without serious efforts to reduce spending or reform major cost drivers, like public pensions and the sprawling human services system, taxpayers should expect a push for tax hikes in 2017.
Pennsylvanians who didn’t stock up on iTunes, eBooks, and game apps yesterday will begin paying more today, as the 6 percent sales tax on digital downloads, satellite radio, and streaming video and audio such as Netflix, goes into effect.
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In the past six years, Pennsylvania taxpayers’ unfunded pension liability has more than doubled from less than $30 billion to $63 billion.
While the legislative debate over reform continues, Pennsylvania taxpayers and state workers are sinking deeper into the pension crisis. A recent Moody’s report on state pension liabilities concludes states with large gaps, like Pennsylvania, will be forced to direct more money toward their pension systems just to keep unfunded liabilities from growing. That means fewer dollars for schools, roads, and other basic services.
A big reason for the growing funding gap is lower than expected investment returns.
The State Employee Retirement System (SERS) assumes a 7.5 percent rate of return for investments, but the actual rate of return was only 0.4 percent in 2015. In the first half of 2016, SERS reported a 2 percent investment return.
The much larger Pennsylvania State Education Retirement System (PSERS) isn’t fairing much better. The fund earned just 1.29 percent for the fiscal year, ending June 30th. Recognizing the reality of today’s economy, the system reduced their assumed rate of return from 7.5 percent to 7.25 percent starting July 2016.
Unfortunately, Governor Wolf vetoed reform back in June 2015 which included a defined contribution, alongside a “cash-balance plan”, for new employees only. This legislation was itself a compromise from a straight 401k-style plan that would provide adequate retirement benefits while being, by definition, fully funded.
By December, the Senate crafted a side-by-side hybrid pension model. The hybrid model allowed new employees have both a (smaller) defined benefit pension and a defined contribution plan from dollar one. While less than ideal, the plan would significantly reduce taxpayer risk, a step in the right direction.
In June, a different reform proposal passed the state house. This stacked-hybrid plan includes a defined benefit plan for workers until they reach $50,000 in salary (or 25 years of service), followed by a defined contribution plan. However, the $50,000 threshold would increase by 3 percent annually--greatly limits the number and extent of employees participating in the defined contribution plan.
There’s no question pension reform is urgent. Lawmakers must prioritize proposals with a stronger defined contribution component while preventing political manipulation of pension payments. Anything less will keep government budgets squeezed and taxpayers exposed to tremendous risk.
Pennsylvania’s state budget is three months old and showing signs of a major budget deficit.
Actual revenue collections are already behind $218.5 million through the first quarter, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue. In July, the legislature passed and Gov. Wolf signed a $1.3 billion revenue package, which includes $650 million in higher taxes, to help pay for a $1.6 billion increase in government spending.
The revenue assumptions built into the billion dollar package are now proving optimistic. The chart below shows revenue collections lagging official estimates in each of the first three months.
In August, the Independent Fiscal Office identified problems with certain revenue projections used to balance the budget—at least on paper. Here are their major assumptions:
- The IFO deducts $95 million to pay for the expenses of the Commonwealth Financing Authority (CFA) from sales tax revenue. The legislature moved this line-item out of the General Fund Budget and created a new fund via the fiscal code. Legislative leaders have expressed an interest in passing gambling expansion to generate $100 million to cover CFA spending, but no enabling legislation exists.
- IFO assumes Act 39 (wine modernization) will raise $73 million in 2016-17. The legislature predicts an increase of $149 million—a $76 million difference.
- IFO projections of tobacco tax revenue (includes taxes on cigarettes, e-cigarettes, loose & roll-your-own tobacco) are approximately $38 million less than the official projections.
- $75 million from the Philadelphia casino is not included in the IFO’s official revenue estimate. They do not expect it will generate revenue for the current fiscal year.
Moreover, the budget was unbalanced from the start. The budget counts on $260 million in one-time revenue and transfers from other funds, and a $200 million loan from the Pennsylvania Professional Liability Joint Underwriting Association.
Borrowing money to pay our bills is the very definition of unbalanced.
If current revenue trends continue, lawmakers and the governor will need to focus on reducing government spending to balance the budget. Such as,
- Cutting back on $800 million in arbitrary corporate welfare,
- Immediately imposing a (real) hiring freeze and travel ban, and
- Reviewing funds outside the General Fund budget for savings.
As the fiscal year progresses, and more revenue collections are announced, we will continue to update our Deficit Watch.
Gov. Wolf is embracing a government that works for the wealthy and well-connected. Yesterday, his administration announced its intention to commit more than $20.5 million to Aramark just to keep the corporation located in Philadelphia.
The governor’s preferential treatment of Aramark stands in stark contrast to his treatment of the state’s 300 vape shops. In short, he's putting shop owners out of business for $13 million in revenue, while handing over $20 million to a multi-billion-dollar corporation.
In each of Wolf's first two years in office, his budget included a 40 percent excise tax on the vaping industry. It failed the first year. Unfortunately, lawmakers relented and passed the tax in July as part of a larger $650 million tax increase.
The results have been disastrous. Dozens of shops—like Scottie Freeman’s— have closed their doors and many more are on the verge of closing if the tax is not repealed. Despite the devastation sweeping through the industry, Gov. Wolf hasn’t demonstrated any urgency to undo the damage he’s responsible for.
Maybe the most exasperating aspect of the tax is how much pain its causing for a relatively insignificant impact on the state’s budget picture. The tax is projected to raise about $13 million in total revenue—representing only 2 percent of the $650 million tax increase package. This figure is also $7 million less than what the state just committed to Aramark. Is there a better example of government playing favorites?
Gov. Wolf has made a conscious choice to treat some businesses and people better than others. Aramark and Amazon—they get subsidies. Vape shop owners—they get a platitude-filled press statement about their concerns. Talk about inequality.
Pennsylvania has a history of handing out corporate welfare. It’s hasn’t worked. And it creates a system people grow to resent—one where government picks winners and losers without worrying about the economic consequences. It needs to end.
If Gov. Wolf and lawmakers want to make things right, they can start by repealing the excise tax and reducing corporate welfare. This will help bridge the inevitable budget deficit, but more importantly, prevent further harm to Pennsylvanians.
A majority of Pennsylvanians want pension reform. In a poll conducted from October 4th to 9th, 54 percent of voters supported placing new state employees in a 401(k)-style retirement plan. Pension reform isn't a partisan issue: 67 percent of Republicans, 51 percent of Independents and a plurality ...