What can we cut?

An anonymous poster to GrassrootsPA defends the recently enacted state budget against criticism from the Commonwealth Foundation, along with that in other comments.

The budget does not, in fact, set the stage for tax increases. WAMS are less than 1.5% of the budget. Borrowing hardly kicks the can down the road. Not fixing bridges kicks the can down the road. Welfare cash grants are less than 1% of the budget. Which of the following would you like to cut? Basic Ed funding? Medical Assistance (for the very poor and aged)? Correctional Institutions? County Child Welfare? Special Education? Mental Retardation Services? Long-Term Care (for the aged)? Together these programs represent nearly 50% of the budget. You may answer, “well cut the state workers”. They already did.

For starters, the poster only notes the 50% of the state budget he thinks everyone would support. But wait, doesn’t that leave 50% of the budget on programs that aren’t so non-controversial? In other words, the budget could be cut in half and still preserve those program.

If only I had co-authored a study detailing waste and proposing cuts in the budget—oh wait I did. Government on a Diet finds over $4 billion in wasteful spending in state government, including $1.2 billion from the General Fund—and that doesn’t even tackle the programs the poster highlights. But that is not to say we shouldn’t reduce spending on those programs.

Indeed, in Edifice Complex, we detailed the dramatic growth in education spending—most dramatically for new construction—without producing academic gains. How can we save funding? How about through school choice, as charter schools, cyber schools, private schools (even we supported by tax credits like the EITC), home schooling, et. al. are far more cost effective than public schools and save taxpayers at the state and local level billions, as our policy brief The Dollars and Sense of School Choice and our website SchoolChoiceSaves.org detail.

We have also highlighted the dramatic and unsustainable growth in Medicaid (Medical Assistance), and offered suggestions for reforming that program which would not only save money, but provide better health care for recipients. Furthermore, there is plenty of bloat in correction institutions, and we testified to the efficiency and savings of competitively contracting prison operations—including specific services (health care, cafeterias), prison construction, and even total prison operations.

But what about bridges? Surely that is a proper function of government. Yet the borrowing for bridge repair is on top of past debt and current borrowing for pork projects—like soccer stadiums and ill-fated cargo airports. There are also cost savings measured needed in transportation funding, even the Governor’s funding commission recommended that. How about repealing prevailing wage laws for bridge construction and repair, as I testified to. That is estimated to reduce the cost by 20%—enough to repair a lot of those bridges without new spending or borrowing. We should also be directing funding to repairing existing infrastructure, rather than directing it to politically selected projects, like roads named after lawmakers. Pennsylvania can also save money through competitively contracting mass transit operations. Lastly, we need to look to the private sector, not the taxpayer, for financing. Public private partnerships on new facilities, HOT lanes, and the like—along with leasing the Pennsylvania Turnpike—are mechanisms for improving our infrastructure while not increasing taxes or debt.

Finally, as for “cutting the workers”, we should reduce the 3,000 or so legislative staffers as we move from a professional to a citizen legislature—particularly those staffers involved strictly in public relations for their bosses, such as posting anonymously on GrassrootsPA.

As Jefferson said, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” Reversing direction and dramatically reforming the way the state government does business is a hard task. Spending more money to keep going along the same path is easy. Unfortunately, lawmakers consistently choose the easy path.