Pennsylvanians Deserve Open Budget Debate

With the approach of June 30th and the end of the state’s fiscal year comes the annual argument in Harrisburg over Pennsylvania’s budget.  With Senate Republicans having passed a spending plan that sheers $1.7 billion from Gov. Rendell’s $29 billion proposal, the debate promises to be especially acrimonious.

Critics of the plan say it guts essential programs and services, such as education and health care. Cultural organizations and state parks would have to close, they say, and agriculture would be crippled.  Senate Republicans brush aside these claims, noting that funding cuts primarily affect non-essential programs.

Hyperbole aside, what will actually happen if certain programs have their funding cut?  It’s virtually impossible for taxpayers, reporters, and even rank-and-file legislators to tell. The state budget contains thousands of innocuous-sounding line items, but almost no detail is provided as to what appropriations actually fund.

For there to be an informed budget debate in which taxpayers can participate, Pennsylvania must enact full transparency in state spending.  Twenty states and the federal government have online spending databases or transparency portals. Pennsylvania should follow suit by enacting legislation like bills sponsored by Sen. Pat Browne and Rep. Jim Christiana, both with bipartisan support. 

A web database like Kansas’s Kanview would allow Pennsylvanians to examine their state budget by agency and then by program to see where their tax dollars are going, which would obligate policymakers to demonstrate a connection between appropriations and services. 

Pennsylvania also needs to implement performance-based budgeting.  While it would certainly be beneficial to show how taxpayer dollars are being spent, it is also crucial to know whether or not programs are working as they were intended.

Performance-based budgeting forces agencies to set clear goals and measure outcomes. Today, programs and departments are typically rewarded with yearly funding increases regardless of their value. Allocations are based on lobbying effectiveness and political favors rather than performance. Budgeting without performance measures is akin to investing in a company without knowing if it is profitable.

Rep. Karen Beyer has a proposal to use zero-based budgeting, a type of performance-based budgeting that would require a thorough review of each government program every five years. Agencies would have to justify every dollar of funding.

In 1995,  Gov. Ridge created the IMPACCT taskforce to parse through state spending and identify ineffective and duplicative programs, as well as ways to spend more efficiently. Revisiting such a thorough review of state spending, and doing so on a regular basis, would dramatically improve the budget process.
Finally, the legislature should enact a state spending cap—a strict limit on the size of the budget to be exceeded only with voter approval or to meet an emergency. Had Gov. Rendell and the General Assembly held state spending growth to inflation and population growth over the last six years (19.8%), Pennsylvania would be looking at a $1.2 billion surplus instead of a $3 billion deficit.  Over that time, $15.9 billion could have been returned to taxpayers (a savings of $5,000 per family of four).

Combined with spending transparency and performance reviews, a spending limit would force lawmakers to prioritize spending, and justify additional spending to voters, which in turn would result in the elimination of wasteful spending and cronyism.

Rather than partisan rhetoric, political gamesmanship, and closed-door negotiations, Pennsylvanians deserve an open budget process.  It’s time lawmakers let the taxpayers know how their money is being spent, review the effectiveness and efficiency of programs before increasing their funding, and give voters greater control of the purse strings.

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Nathan A. Benefield is Director of Policy Research and Elizabeth Bryan is a Research Associate with the Commonwealth Foundation (, an independent, nonprofit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg