July signals the coming of two breaks in Pennsylvania—Major League Baseball’s All-Star break and the end of the state budget season. Having endured his first budget as the commonwealth’s chief executive, Gov. Tom Corbett has effectively finished the first inning of a nine-inning baseball game. The question is, how did he do at bat?
On total spending, the governor and his team hit a double. The 2011-12 total operating budget represents the first reduction in spending in more than 40 years. Gov. Corbett reached second base, signing a budget with cuts to state-subsidized universities, returning school district funding to pre-stimulus levels and making major reductions in corporate welfare programs. The final spend number does include some accounting gimmicks—adding money into the prior year’s budget—but represents a long-needed step to reduce the size of government.
However, the budget fell short of being a home run, as spending cuts were not deep enough to address the commonwealth’s growing deficits in areas like unemployment compensation or pensions, areas the governor will have to address next year. And the budget did little to reduce Pennsylvania’s onerous tax burden, currently the 10th highest in the nation.
On school choice, one of the top priorities for the governor, Corbett struck out swinging…unfortunately, with the bases loaded with children begging for help to escape failing and violent schools. The budget deal failed to include vouchers or expand a successful tax credit program for private school scholarships, which passed the House overwhelmingly this spring. School choice will likely be addressed in another at bat, but Gov. Corbett and lawmakers missed a huge opportunity, striking out on a key agenda item.
By signing a bill creating a Web site to track state spending, Gov. Corbett hit a triple with two runs batted in. PennWATCH was perhaps the best play of this year’s budget process Gov. Corbett built upon hits from Rep. Jim Christiana and Sen. Pat Browne, who have been pressing for spending transparency for voters over the last couple years. Pennsylvania will soon be the 37th state to put all spending (and employee salaries) online for taxpayers to see where their money is going. Implementation of the database—ensuring that users can easily find information—will determine if this becomes a home run.
Gov. Corbett legged out a hard-earned single on taxpayer referendum for school tax increases. Over the last few years, property taxes have skyrocketed while school districts have avoided facing voters, using thousands of exemptions to Pennsylvania’s “referendum in name only.” Working with Rep. Seth Grove, the governor pushed for giving voters a say on all school tax increases above the rate of inflation. What he got was fewer loopholes school districts can use. More voters may get a voice on school tax hikes, but this represents a small move toward the ultimate goal.
By staring down lawmakers until they tabled discussion of a natural gas tax or fee, Gov. Corbett drew a walk. Several legislators in both chambers pushed for a new tax or impact fee, but Gov. Corbett made it clear he was sticking to his “no new taxes” pledge to voters. The governor’s Marcellus Shale Commission report is due this summer, and this showdown over taxes/fees will surface again.
Perhaps most disappointing was Gov. Corbett’s failure on union contracts negotiations. He effectively ground into a double play—failing to get any real concessions on health care benefits while committing taxpayers to an extra $160 million by 2015 in state workers’ salaries. Given a huge opportunity that only comes along every four years to bring government worker compensation in line with the private sector, the governor failed to deliver.
Along with school choice, much of Gov. Corbett’s agenda will come up to the plate during the fall, as issues were deliberately postponed until after the budget. Leading off the next inning will be liquor choice. Getting government out of the booze business is a priority of the governor and House Majority Leader Mike Turzai. On deck will be welfare reform, trying to control the unsustainable growth in what is now the largest department in state government. And in the hole is pension reform, following up on Gov. Corbett’s campaign promise to move government employees to a 401(k)-style plan like those in the private sector.
Gov. Corbett’s first inning had some big hits as well as some blown opportunities. As the new governor has hopefully learned, he must come out swinging to drive home school choice and liquor choice for Pennsylvania students and adults.
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Nathan A. Benefield is Director of Policy Analysis with the Commonwealth Foundation (www.CommonwealthFoundation.org), an independent, nonprofit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.