Budget passage must become state’s priority

Without an approved budget in place when Pennsylvania’s fiscal year begins on July 1, Harrisburg should not be permitted to spend money outside the realm of vital services.

If a budget isn’t passed and signed into law by 11:59 p.m. June 30, the Pennsylvania Treasury’s power to release money for salaries and other routine expenditures should cease until the Legislature and governor complete their budget-preparation work.

Again, exceptions should apply to entities such as the state police and those other services that are critical to protecting and saving lives and property and otherwise maintaining order.

Upon assuming office earlier this year, state Treasurer Joe Torsella pledged to revisit the issue of whether it is legal for the Treasury to release money to the three branches of state government while there isn’t an approved spending package in place for the start of a new fiscal calendar.

It’s an issue about which a definitive answer should have been ascertained many years ago, but state officials found it convenient to let resolving the question “slide.”

Granted, there are potential “potholes” to forcing the Legislature and governor to compromise before they’re ready to do so. However, Pennsylvania’s missed budget deadlines have not occurred because of any shortage of time for fashioning a new spending plan.

Rather, those missed deadlines have been the product of the General Assembly’s and Governor’s Office’s penchant for not getting serious about budget preparation and compromise until virtually the last minute.

With no money available from the Treasury for salaries and routine services, as well as a prohibition for the Treasury to guarantee repayment of bank loans sought by legislative caucuses as budget-stalemate “insurance,” pressure would be applied for ensuring that a budget accord is reached on time.

Getting an approved budget in place on time also would spare entities that depend on state money from experiencing financial hardship and having to make decisions that erode the quality of their services, even if only temporarily.

None of the budget stalemates of recent years ended with agreements that were the best that could have been molded. Those agreements consistently were derelict in addressing issues that were causing the state’s deficit to grow to what currently is the alarming figure of $3 billion.

On the matter of paying legislative salaries during a budget stalemate, Torsella’s predecessor, Tim Reese, concluded that it was legal for the Treasury to release money for that purpose.

However, at this time, Torsella remains unconvinced.

“We hope to come to a conclusion in about a month,” said Christopher Craig, state Treasury Department chief counsel, during a telephone interview with the online news and information service Capitolwire.

If Pennsylvania’s state government were committed consistently to meeting the existing budget-preparation deadline, time and money would not have to be expended for a study like the one in question.

But members of the General Assembly and the executive branch have regularly demonstrated a belief that deadlines merely are words that don’t apply to them.

Pennsylvania stands to benefit if the review initiated under Torsella finds that Reese’s opinion was wrong. It’s possible that such a new opinion would pour the foundation for quicker, more productive budget discussions and ultimately budget work that’s completed on time.

That’s what this state deserves, but so often has failed to witness.

The irresponsible budget preparation exercises of past years must not be repeated.