State budget filled with anxiety
The fiscal time bomb challenging the best budget instincts of the Pennsylvania General Assembly keeps getting closer to exploding.
The important question that should be in the minds of state taxpayers is whether lawmakers really have enough time between now and Nov. 30 to fashion a realistic spending plan for the remainder of this fiscal year, which will end June 30 — a budget that won’t end up disastrous for 2021-22 and possibly beyond.
Realistically, there are many deeply troubling money questions now in play for state residents to be exuding confidence about what lies ahead, even though there currently is no stomach in Harrisburg for increasing any taxes.
The estimated $5 billion funding gap staring at the Legislature includes no option for wishing it away. Barring some windfall from the federal government, some painful decisions will need to be made before the end of November, since there will be less of a window for “creative” budget balancing at this time than what existed in those years when lawmakers were tackling much smaller deficits.
Completing the unfinished budget work by Nov. 30 is crucial, since that date marks the end of the current legislative session and, traditionally, new sessions don’t shift into the proverbial high gear until early January.
As a spokeswoman for Gov. Tom Wolf pointed out earlier this month, failure to complete budget work by this session’s end date could necessitate employee furloughs and put on hold critical payments needed to keep the state government operating properly.
Sen. Vince Hughes, D-Philadelphia, was on target when he observed that “if Dec. 1 comes and there’s no state budget, then things start to collapse. It just gets to be a very, very ugly situation.”
The General Assembly is not the root cause of the financial tension with which the Legislature is trying to cope.
Nevertheless, lawmakers are the people responsible for solving the state’s problems, and shifting that responsibility to a new session having a number of newly seated members unfamiliar with state budget preparation is not a situation that should be forced to exist.
There is some good news cloaked within the challenges with which lawmakers will be dealing in the race to final budget passage.
The partial, $25.8 billion budget package assembled by the General Assembly months ago during the worst of the pandemic did provide a full year of funding for numerous public school programs, colleges and universities, debt payments and pension costs.
How lawmakers and the Wolf administration will address everything else remains the big question.
State residents would be hard-pressed to recall a time when challenges of such great proportion were facing the state.
Hopefully, successfully dealing with the fiscal work ahead will make the General Assembly a better, more capable Legislature for addressing the other challenges it surely will face, going forward, pandemic-related or not.
Most important now, however, is that the budget deadline — the ticking time bomb -continues to loom, yet lawmakers’ current attention span is more focused on election campaigning than on budget completion.
True, the uncertainty over how the presidential election will shake out — and how the successful presidential candidate might try to help address Pennsylvania’s fiscal needs — provides some wait-and-see opportunity before final budget decision-making, but not much.
If there ever was a time when bipartisanship and compromise were indispensable in budget preparation, that time is now.