A New Direction for Pennsylvania's Budget

I have an op-ed in today's Philadelphia Inquirer outlining what steps Governor Tom Corbett should take in his budget address today. Check it out.

Gov. Corbett and his staff have crisscrossed the state over the past few weeks, previewing the state budget to be unveiled Tuesday. The change in style is welcome for a governor who has seemed reluctant to explain his priorities or defend his positions.

Pennsylvanians also appear to be clamoring for a change in substance. A recent Quinnipiac poll shows that only 36 percent of Pennsylvanians approve of Gov. Corbett's job performance - while 46 percent disapprove.

It's not a mystery that the governor's popularity tumbled after last year's budget debate: An on-time spending plan is not enough to compensate for a budget out of step with Pennsylvanians' priorities. Even Republican Senate President Pro Tem Joseph Scarnati said recently that in the last two years, "we cut through the muscle, and we are in bone."

So this next budget will be very important for Gov. Corbett and all Pennsylvanians. Will we see the same limited-government-at-any-cost approach, or has the governor read the tea leaves?

There are some early promising signs. Midyear budget cuts - an all-too-common December surprise over the last five years under Govs. Ed Rendell and Corbett - were avoided as tax revenues grew.

Gov. Corbett will unveil a transportation initiative to rebuild public transit, roads, and bridges, after long delays and uncertain funding had stalled infrastructure investments.

By making a few more commonsense changes, Gov. Corbett can get the economy, and his popularity, back on track.

The first step is to abandon an economic development approach that relies solely on business tax cuts. Pennsylvania cannot afford to give tax breaks to profitable corporations that make no commitment to create jobs - nor can it continue to look the other way as companies use loopholes to shift profits tax-free to Delaware and Nevada.

We will never "tax cut" our way to prosperity. Over the short term, special-interest tax breaks create market distortions and provide questionable public benefit. Over the long term, tax breaks weaken the commonwealth's ability to make investments that do grow our economy - in public education, colleges, public safety, and infrastructure. Pennsylvania is spending nearly $2.5 billion, almost 10 percent of this year's state budget, on corporate tax cuts.

The second step is to get back on track with education funding. Nearly a billion dollars in education cuts have sacrificed student achievement and hurt the economy.

We cannot help students prepare to enter a global economy when budget cuts have increased class sizes in 70 percent of school districts, reduced elective courses in 44 percent, and cut tutoring in 35 percent, according to a survey of school superintendents.

The education cuts have also hurt the state's economy, with nearly 20,000 teaching and support positions eliminated in public schools.

Our elected leaders have set high educational standards to prepare our young people for the changing economy and enacted a funding plan to ensure every child has the tools to meet those standards. The results were clear: Pennsylvania was the only state to improve student performance in every subject at every grade level between 2006 and 2009. Maintaining that progress will require significant, sustained new investment in our children's education.

The solution is not to condition education funding on pension changes. We have an obligation to today's students to restore funding, regardless of the outcome of the pension debate.

Pennsylvania has among the highest public college tuition in the country, and its students graduate with greater amounts of debt. We have a small number of community colleges and shrinking local support. Keeping college affordable is a key public responsibility.

In order to get Pennsylvania back on track, Gov. Corbett and lawmakers must have the political courage to change course.

Grover Norquist has criticized the governor for enacting a Marcellus Shale tax that is much less than the industry pays in other energy-producing states, and has already signaled opposition to the transportation plan, which raises revenue through a higher fee on oil companies. Policymakers should hold firm.

Pennsylvania has long enjoyed a record of economic success rooted in policies of investment, not retrenchment. Investments in public goods have kept our unemployment rate lower than the nation's. More of our citizens have health coverage through their jobs, and we have been a national leader in health coverage for children.

Gov. Corbett and lawmakers have a choice: more cuts that undermine this progress and pass the buck to families and communities - or a reinvestment in Pennsylvania's future.

The economic downturn forced our elected leaders to make choices that have made life more difficult for Pennsylvania families. We cannot shortchange our kids or our economy any longer.

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