If you are a fan of dark humor, we direct your attention to the budget plan passed by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives on Wednesday.
At their core, budgets are fairly simple things, comprised of two categories: income and expenses. Under the Pennsylvania Constitution those two categories must match exactly at the bottoms of their columns.
Enter politics and creative accounting, throw in some cowardice, and you have the hallmarks of the $29.1 billion spending plan rammed through the House by its Republican majority, albeit with one defector.
Here's how the House proposes to handle the expected $1.3 billion shortfall in that second category we mentioned:
- First sell off the state's wine and liquor stores, the theory being that they can get $380 million in instant cash by unloading the stores which only transfered $80 million last year to the state treasury and a bit over $4.4 million to municipalities from license fees. There are two problems with this first step. It is a one-time infusion of cash and begs the question: What state asset do we sell next year? And, political observers say the proposal is a virtual non-starter in the Senate.
- Paper over part of the hole in the budget with one-time transfers of special off-budget items totaling hundreds of millions of dollars (the creative accounting we mentioned).
- Ignore Gov. Tom Corbett's call to do some heavy lifting and tackle the massive public pension crisis that portends even worse deficits in the near and distant future. Politics and cowardice figure into this failure as the legislature avoids anything that might offend well-organized and well-funded organized labor. In the absence of any reasonable pension reform measure, the lawmakers are pleading to state department heads to please, please, please squeeze their budgets to absorb the pension costs. It's not just Corbett who is sounding the alarm on pensions; Standard & Poor's has warned the state risks a downgrade in its investment rating if it doesn't make significant strides to tame the pension gorilla.
What House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, calls "an exceptionally responsible budget," sounds to us as responsible as paying off one credit card with another at a higher rate of interest.