Gov. Corbett's First Budget Deserves a D

I have an op-ed in today's edition of The Patriot-News grading the 2011-12 state budget. Not a very promising report card. Check it out.

Gov. Corbett's First Budget Deserves a D
By Sharon Ward

Summer is upon us. The school year is over, grades are in, and in Harrisburg, the state budget is done. But before we hit the beach, it’s time to take out our red pen once more and give the state budget a final grade.

In March, we identified a series of principles to guide lawmakers’ choices through the budget process and to help evaluate their decisions. Lawmakers faced a formidable goal and a formidable challenge in 2011. The goal? To maintain Pennsylvania’s relatively strong job growth coming out of the recession and keep the economy humming. The commonwealth added 63,900 jobs from December 2009 to December 2010, ranking seventh nationally. Could we keep the momentum going?

The challenge? To manage the loss of federal funds that helped Pennsylvania to avoid the worst cuts in education and health care, and to preserve thousands of jobs through the darkest days of the recession with spending on transportation, infrastructure and clean energy.

We crafted principles to reflect these circumstances. First, a good state budget should create jobs today and ensure our long-term economic success. It should improve the efficiency and transparency of government and maintain expenditures that produce long-term savings. It should avoid shifting costs from the state to local taxpayers.

So how did lawmakers do? Unfortunately, not well. I’m giving this budget a D. The budget prioritizes spending reductions regardless of consequences — a priority that few Pennsylvanians share. To accomplish this, the budget cuts the number of teachers in the classroom, raises college tuition and forces increases in local property taxes in many places. It leaves most of a $785 million revenue surplus untouched and frees natural gas drillers once more from paying a tax in Pennsylvania that they pay everywhere else. Let’s take a closer look at each principle.

Job creation: With nearly $900 million in cuts to education, school districts are likely to cut thousands of jobs. Cuts to job training programs, nutrition services, adult literacy and child care will lead to additional layoffs. Job cuts are nothing to celebrate: They have ripple effects throughout the economy that slow the economic recovery.

Improving efficiency and transparency: The budget takes a step backward on transparency. It relies on gimmicks that shuffle funds between bank accounts and fiscal years, which conceals actual spending and hides the revenue surplus. It also gives unprecedented authority to the secretary of public welfare to sidestep existing rulemaking processes to impose sweeping changes in services for vulnerable Pennsylvanians.

Ensuring long-term success: Pennsylvania’s future depends on a skilled workforce, innovation and sound infrastructure. This budget invests in none of these. In education, student test scores have gone up during the last eight years, but deep cuts threaten that progress. Reduced funding for universities, meanwhile, will hamper innovation and put college out of reach for more students.

Preventing a tax shift: Pennsylvania has a history of shifting education costs onto local taxpayers, and this budget continues that tradition. School districts and counties will be under enormous pressure to increase taxes to make up for lost state funding for schools, child abuse protection and other social services.

Investments that produce long-term savings: Early childhood programs and full-day kindergarten are cut in this budget, despite research showing that such investments pay long-term dividends through savings in education and prison costs.

While the budget cuts funding for a variety of services, lawmakers missed several opportunities to cut actual costs and save money. No efforts were made to slow growth in the state prison population and nursing home utilization, two of the highest-priced items in the budget.

Pennsylvania’s economy is improving, but we have not fully recovered from the recession. The budget decisions made by our lawmakers could have helped to stabilize the economy to make a successful transition from recession to recovery. Instead, these choices could very well make things worse.

In the coming months, the full impact of these cuts will be felt in schools and communities across the commonwealth. Then it will be up to the people of Pennsylvania to take out their red pens to grade the choices made in this budget and the priorities that guided them.

Sharon Ward is the director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center in Harrisburg.

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