The public’s budget is a private affair

July 10, 2014

Back in the late 1960s, the decidedly low-key comedian George Gobel had the misfortune of appearing on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” as the third guest after entertainment icons Bob Hope and Dean Martin. Following his introduction and a pregnant pause, Gobel looked at Carson and said, “Did you ever get the feeling that the world was a tuxedo and you were a brown pair of shoes?”

We wonder if that’s the way rank-and-file members of our state Legislature sometimes feel, especially around budget-making time, when the entire process of crafting a spending plan for the commonwealth seems to be in the hands of a small group of lawmakers, in consultation with the governor’s office. When they are done with their behind-closed-doors nipping and tucking, they foist the entire package onto their colleagues, give them next to no time to review it, then whisk it to a vote. It’s like dumping “War and Peace” into someone’s lap and telling him you expect a full report the next morning.

But, the dutiful members of the majority party, in this case Republicans in both the state House and Senate, are led like cattle to an abattoir and almost unanimously deliver their votes for whatever their leaders have put in front of them.

But if you think they have it bad, just imagine being a Democrat in the Legislature. When it comes to crafting a budget, they might as well stay home. Like you, they are merely spectators in this process. Not only do they have virtually zero say in what goes into the budget proposal, they also aren’t allowed to say much of anything once it’s delivered to the House and Senate floors. Attempts to offer amendments, no matter how worthy of consideration they might be, or to seek a discussion of a reasonable difference of opinion about some aspect of the plan are waved off as if the minority-party legislators were 6-year-olds asking to sit at the “big people’s table” at Thanksgiving dinner.

And who, in their position, wouldn’t have questions? Such as, do the revenue estimates cooked up by the budget cabal stand up to scrutiny? Is there fat that should be trimmed here or more money needed there? Are there pork-barrel additions to the budget designed to benefit the district of a particularly well-connected lawmaker?

We don’t know. They don’t care.

This isn’t a shot at the Republicans in charge of Harrisburg right now. Democrats would do exactly the same thing. How do we know that? Well, they have in the past, and the spirit of bipartisanship sure hasn’t improved over the ensuing years.

But just passing the budget didn’t mean we actually got a budget by the mandated June 30 deadline. Gov. Tom Corbett finally signed off on the plan Thursday, after waiting to see what lawmakers would send his way when they approved a whole passel of supplemental measures under the umbrella of altering the “fiscal code.”

Corbett also used his authority to veto $65 million lawmakers wanted to spend on their own operations, which is a good start to reining in an operation from which Pennsylvanians rarely seem to get a good return on their investment.

The governor also took lawmakers to task for their failure to do anything about the state’s burgeoning public pension crisis, which has affected not just the commonwealth but the budgets of school districts across the state. He called on legislators to return to Harrisburg in short order to address the issue. The “full-time” lawmakers are not due back in Harrisburg until mid-September, when they’ll presumably put in a few grueling days before shuffling off to resume their campaigns for re-election. We really don’t see them doing much, if anything, about pensions, because it no doubt would require some difficult, and assuredly unpopular, actions. And, well, you know, there’s that election in November.

Back to the budget as a whole. It’s probably too much to expect that our lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, veterans and neophytes, could all play a role or at least have some working knowledge of the state’s budget proposal before it is cast in stone. Barring that, perhaps there should be a requirement that no vote can be taken on a budget bill until it has been posted for all to see – and that means we the people, too – for at least one week.

That won’t solve all the problems, but at least it’s a start.



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