Gov’t should be footing bill for voting machines

The Pennsylvania House Appropriations Committee — and the General Assembly as a whole — need to take a close look at Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposal that the state cover at least half the cost of voting machines that would leave a paper trail as a safeguard against hacking.

Doing that would be an example of good government.

But perhaps the question of where the commonwealth would find the money for the reimbursement is not quite as perplexing as Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, has made it seem.

A Mirror article on Monday quoted a Saylor statement saying that “once again, the governor is committing the commonwealth to more spending without explaining how he plans to pay for it.”

Perhaps that’s a good argument, but consider:

For the first four months of the current state fiscal year that began July 1, the state recorded incoming General Fund revenue $238 million above what had been estimated for that time period. Then, on Tuesday, the incoming General Fund revenue figure for November was reported to be $95.5 million — 4.3 percent — above the projection for the month.

If incoming-revenue figures continue above estimates, it would seem that the state shouldn’t be too hard-pressed in helping counties pay for new voting machines.

However, there’s a big “if” tied to that observation — if, during 2018-19 budget preparation earlier this year, the Legislature and Wolf didn’t engage in financial maneuverings that made the current budget seem balanced when in fact it was something less than that.

Quoting from a Nov. 25 Mirror editorial:

“State residents aren’t destined to get solid insight into how genuine and accurate — perhaps ‘honest’ is a better word — 2018-19 incoming and outgoing money projections were until serious progress on the state’s 2019-20 spending package begins to take shape sometime around late April.”

The state’s counties have estimated that the new voting machines, which can be bought through a statewide purchasing contract that’s expected to be posted by Dec. 31, will cost about $125 million. However, this is a bad time for counties to be left wondering whether state financial help connected to the voting-machines purchase will be forthcoming.

That’s because counties are finalizing budgets for their 2019 fiscal year that begins Jan. 1.

Because of the current uncertainty regarding the state reimbursement, some of the state’s 67 counties have initiated plans to borrow money to cover the machines’ total cost, meaning that the counties’ taxpayers will foot the bill for interest incurred on the full amount of those loans, even if all of that money ultimately isn’t needed.

According to the Governor’s Office, Wolf’s proposal to cover at least half of the machines’ cost would be on top of about $14 million in federal money that is available for the purchase.

When the state and federal governments issue costly new mandates, they should provide financial help in implementing the mandates, not throw the cost of those mandates fully on the backs of property tax payers.

According to Monday’s Mirror article, four in five Pennsylvania voters use machines that lack an auditable paper trail, and the Keystone State is viewed as one of the most vulnerable states after federal authorities said Russian hackers targeted at least 21 states during the 2016 presidential election.

Wolf wants to get Pennsylvania’s new machines into service before the 2020 presidential primary election.

For the counties’ benefit, Wolf and the Legislature should strive to get the reimbursement issue resolved quickly.

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