Santa alone can’t cure budget woes

This holiday season Gov. Tom Corbett and the Pennsylvania General Assembly are hoping Santa will fill their stockings with easy answers to the money dilemma projected for the new fiscal year that will begin July 1.

As reported in Sunday’s Mirror, Corbett and lawmakers face a challenging search for funds for what is projected to be a difficult 2014-15 budget-preparation exercise.

During his nearly three years as the state’s chief executive, Corbett, along with the Republican-controlled Legislature, has succeeded in avoiding an income tax increase through deep cost-cutting and hold-the-line measures, including those that have caused serious challenges for the state’s 500 school districts and programs benefiting the poor.

But if those officials are banking on Santa having the right answers for the difficult budget deliberations that lie ahead in advance of Feb. 4, when Corbett is scheduled to present his 2014-15 spending proposal to the General Assembly, they’ve forgotten that St. Nick doesn’t need or have much budget experience.

Some of his “helpers” can’t avoid money issues, but Santa isn’t the person on whom Harrisburg should rely to rescue the state from a new fiscal dilemma.

Based on Harrisburg’s budget-preparation performance over the past decade or so, lumps of coal might be much deserved once again by the time June arrives.

While in one sense state residents might be justified in praising Corbett and the General Assembly for avoiding a tax increase, especially during the darkest years of the Great Recession, it’s time to acknowledge that the past no-tax-increase success is unlikely to last, if what officials now are saying proves accurate.

Charles Zogby, Corbett’s budget secretary, is projecting a $1.4 billion deficit – about 5 percent of the $28.4 billion spending package of the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Republicans hope to eliminate or reduce that deficit by way of expanded lottery gambling, scaled-back pension benefits for future public employees, and an electric suppliers’ measure that’s already been denounced by some, including the AARP.

At the same time, primarily because 2014 is a gubernatorial and legislative election year, lawmakers and the governor, trying to win favor with powerful teachers’ unions, are leaning toward increasing spending for public education, despite the state not really being able to afford that.

It would be refreshing if Harrisburg’s Democrats and Republicans could enter the new budget-preparation “season” with a Santa-like spirit of giving – through cooperation and compromise. Not all of the ideas put forth by Republicans are right, and not all of the Democrats’ ideas are wrong.

The message here is not that the governor and Legislature should choose the less-complicated path of increasing the income tax to eliminate or greatly reduce the $1.4 billion shortfall. However, officials must begin acknowledging publicly that, based on the state’s financial realities and if incoming revenue remains stagnant, an income tax increase – if only for a couple of years’ duration – will be needed a year or two from now.

Corbett and lawmakers shouldn’t hope for a “stocking miracle,” but they should allow the way Santa brings hope to the holiday season to serve as an inspiration for their important budget work.