PlanCon only part of strain

The front page of last Sunday’s Mirror reported on the plight of two area school districts seeking to obtain reimbursements under PlanCon, the state’s process for reviewing and compensating for new-construction and renovation projects.

It’s a system that was put in place decades ago – and has worked, as long as money has been available for the reimbursements.

Unfortunately, Gov. Tom Corbett and the General Assembly chose not to fund PlanCon – short for Planning and Construction Workbook – for the current state fiscal year, which ends June 30, and under the state’s 2012-13 spending. That has created a financial dilemma not only for the two area districts in question, Northern Bedford and Everett Area but also for dozens of other public school systems across the commonwealth.

The lack of PlanCon money over the last two years, and pessimism surrounding such funding for 2014-15, has caused Northern Bedford to table indefinitely multimillion-dollar upgrades to its buildings – work that has been in the planning stage for years. Meanwhile, Everett Area has not gotten several hundred thousand dollars that it is due under PlanCon for work already completed.

Northern Bedford has been left about $500,000 in the hole for its planning completed to date.

For the two Bedford County school systems and others, the PlanCon funding failure represents a broken promise on the part of the state.

But many Pennsylvania residents, in lamenting that broken “contract” because of its potential impact on their local tax bills, might not realize major roots of why PlanCon’s coffers are empty.

One cause is obvious: the state’s own fiscal debacle. As an article in Monday’s Mirror reported, our state already is experiencing incoming revenue more than $600 million below estimates for the current fiscal year. That figure could be higher once June’s number is tabulated.

Perhaps the total is so high because lawmakers and Corbett were overly optimistic – some taxpayers might prefer to use the word “deceptive” – in estimating incoming money last June when they were finalizing the 2013-14 spending package.

But also plaguing PlanCon at this time is the continuing fallout from Harrisburg’s 2001 pension grab that aptly can be referred to as the “Ridge Legacy.”

Thanks to Pennsylvania’s chief executive then, Tom Ridge, and his cronies in the Legislature, lawmakers and others in Pennsylvania government, plus public school teachers, received big, irresponsible pension increases.

Most state residents didn’t fully understand the pension “generosity” until years later, when the impact of that action began adversely affecting their school property tax bills.

That “pension factor” continues to impose great strain on Pennsylvania’s and local school districts’ budgets.

Meanwhile, the Legislature continues to sit on its own surplus of more than $100 million – possibly much more – rather than allocate most of that money to a worthy cause such as PlanCon.

Additionally, PlanCon is suffering because of Corbett’s opposition to taxing the Marcellus Shale gas-drilling industry like other states are doing, or to impose a temporary income tax increase to make more money available for schools and help the state escape its financial morass.

PlanCon is only a tiny blip of what’s wrong in Pennsylvania.