As 2018 looms, Pennsylvania in fiscal trouble

When word filtered out of Gov. Tom Wolf’s office in late August that Pennsylvania’s chief executive might be proposing what was described as a “bare bones” budget for 2018-19, the news didn’t provoke much surprise.

That’s what happens during an election year when governors and lawmakers are seeking re-election. Such a proposal is about making the government’s executive and legislative branches look good in the eyes of voters. But, all considered, it must be pondered whether that goal will — and whether that goal should — be possible next year in this state.

Wolf will be seeking a second term, and all state House seats and some in the Senate will be on next year’s ballots.

The fiscal issues currently dogging the state ought to make 2018 an interesting election year, but it’s reasonable to be pessimistic about that possibility, considering voters’ lackadaisical attitude and weak turnout in many past elections involving state offices.

State voters need to up their interest regarding the troubling issues at hand and ponder how state government’s failure to face reality might come back to haunt their wallets and pocketbooks, if not in 2018 then possibly not very long afterward.

The fact is that Pennsylvania cannot continue to accumulate big budget deficits without eventual, major, troubling consequences.

When the news emerged about Wolf’s purported plan for 2018-19, the state was approaching the two-month mark that this fiscal year’s budget had not been fully funded.

At that time, there was some optimism that the unfinished business would be completed soon and that the focus would shift toward avoiding a budget confrontation while next year’s election campaigning was underway.

However, with completion of 2017-18 budget funding still in limbo — and little, if any, penchant for compromise emanating from the House — state residents have been left wondering what the future might hold.

Funding for higher education remains a major victim of the current budget-funding stalemate, and there are other victims as well.

It was the online news and information service Capitolwire that in late August gained access to an internal Wolf administration memo indicating the governor’s thinking for his final budget proposal of his current gubernatorial term.

That memo said the 2018-19 spending plan would be a “cost to carry budget” and the administration “would not be seeking new revenue.”

But depending on the circumstances in the state during that fiscal calendar, the governor’s plan could end up backfiring.

The memo in question states that any requests for additional funding for Fiscal Year 2018-19 must “include a way to cover costs,” such as “cutting/eliminating another program” or some type of departmental reconfiguration.

According to the memo, without a way to pay for a funding request, the request “will be rejected.”

There are officials who contend that thinking should have ruled Wolf’s previous budget proposals and the budget still not completed.

That’s a logical viewpoint; however, it doesn’t address many state government realities.

While 2018-19 might be a bare-bones fiscal year, it might open the door to a new level of hardship for some state-supported entities.

That’s the real danger hanging over Pennsylvania as a result of officeholders who boast about their public service but who, at the same time, are incapable of demanding and exercising compromise — a basic necessity for government to operate efficiently and effectively.

That missing element is why Pennsylvania remains in fiscal trouble.