Need for an Independent Fiscal Office in PA?

A new Pennsylvania Independent Fiscal Office was the subject of a recent legislative hearing this week, with several lawmakers arguing the need for the office (which was included in last year’s budget deal, but still requires enabling legislation).

On the other hand, the Rendell administrations says its not needed. Pennsylvania Budget Secretary Mary Soderberg says the office is unnecessary, because “there is no disagreement about the numbers”. Pete Decoursey of Capitolwire makes a mockery of this statement (subscription).

What? This is a woman who is regularly, reliably $300 million or more wrong, nearly every year, on the amount of welfare spending the state does. Pennsylvania’s annual negative welfare balance, usually $300 million or more in the red, is the most regular ‘surprise’ in state government.

During budget negotiations, her predecessor, Mike Masch, used to tell legislative leaders that he could justify whatever percentage increase of the budget they wanted, once they agreed on the overall increase in budgetary spending for the coming year.

The dollar amount wouldn’t change, neither would the actual cost of running state government. But you move a program back to last year, take another one off-budget, and presto, a 5-percent budget increase is down around 3-percent. As long as nobody paid close attention, anyway.

Besides possibly correcting bad numbers, and Independent Fiscal Office would do a number of things the administration does not do now. As pointed out in our Policy Points, the office would conduct dynamic analysis of tax proposals and their effect on the economy. The new office would also provide evaluations of programs based on their established goals and measures – not just “look at all the good I’ve done” press releases typically put forward by politicians.

This was the subject of a recent episode of the Tempo program on WLVT Allentown, on which I made a brief appearance (via phone).