Most fans enjoy the thrill of overtime when it comes to their favorite sporting events. I wish the “extra innings" that this year’s budget season went into were as enjoyable. A spending plan for the 2007-08 fiscal year was to be in place July 1. For a number of reasons, most of them unnecessary, that did not happen until July 17.
The days between July 1 and the eventual budget signing were not always positive. The time included the one-day furlough of 25,000 state workers. Gov. Ed Rendell chose to enact the temporary layoff, thereby shutting down state parks and museums, interrupting vacations and putting uncertainty in the minds of people who depend on a paycheck. The governor wisely decided that those workers will get paid for their unplanned day off.
Just as unnecessary as the furloughs was the extra time it took to hammer out a budget. On July 9, the House was in session and Republicans were on the floor, ready to do the people’s business. The other side of the aisle, for some reason, was largely unoccupied because Democrats cancelled session less than an hour before it was to convene.
This happened after the July 1 deadline. Well before that date, the Civera amendment, the Republican alternative to the Democrat-proposed budget, was unveiled. It was a responsible plan that would have held spending below the rate of inflation, funded existing programs and offered no new taxes. The amendment was turned down May 23 on a vote that went along party lines, with House Speaker Dennis O’Brien (R-Philadelphia) crossing the aisle to cast the deciding vote with the Democrats.
Republicans did manage to shoot down five new taxes and two tax increases that the governor originally proposed. These included hikes in the state sales tax, electric bills, trash bills and gasoline prices.
Still, what was put on the table July 15 as a spending plan got a no vote from me. In terms of what makes up this budget, agriculture, the state’s number one industry, took a huge hit. Funding for the Department of Agriculture was cut, as was money for crop insurance and agriculture research.
The transportation portion of the budget again asked us to fund mass transit in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Fortunately, our local systems got good news. Red Rose Transit Authority (RRTA) and Capital Area Transit (CAT) will not have to go through with the reduction in services they proposed for 2008. CAT was also facing a rate hike and employee layoffs. Both transit systems will get more than enough to cover their deficits. The transportation bill is also dependent on the tolling of Interstate 80, of which Federal approval is needed. That approval is still up in the air and may be for some time.
As for the spending side of the budget, we are headed in a better direction. The 2007-08 growth rate of 5.3 percent is below the average of the first four years under the Rendell administration. I still feel we could and should have done better, as this figure is more than twice the rate of inflation. The governor managed to get through a $75 million tax credit to entice Hollywood producers to make movies and television shows in this state. He surely could have lessened the tax burden on hard-working Pennsylvanians. A $650 million surplus means taxpayers paid too much. That money belongs back in their wallets.
Property tax relief through slots was promised several years ago and, as of yet, none has come through. Revenue from those same casinos is now being used to fund an expansion of the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia ($880 million over 30 years) and the construction of a new hotel and hockey arena in Pittsburgh ($330 million over 30 years).
Every budget is a give-and-take process. There will always be winners and losers. In that way, it is no different than the budgeting you do at home. The difference here is we are working with your money. We as legislators need to be fiscally responsible in doing what we feel is best for you as a citizen of Pennsylvania. The “noâ€ vote that I cast fell in line with what I thought was right for my constituents, and the feeling I got from them during the long budget process. I hope next year we can do better.
Rep. Dave Hickernell
Pennsylvania House of Representatives
House Republican Public Relations