Op-Ed: Governor’s address marks the start of a broken budget process

Throughout my first five years in office – four as a state Representative and one as a state Senator – one thing is as consistent as Punxsutawney Phil coming out of his slumber in Gobbler’s Knob on February 2: there are always budget gimmicks and games played in Harrisburg.

Our state’s Constitution has some guiding principles when it comes to the practice of budgeting. Over the years, the lines have become more and more blurred over whether or not these guidelines in our Constitution are being used or abused. No political party is immune or guilt-free of these practices – it has happened under Republican and Democratic administrations alike.

Last year’s budget was met with little of the fanfare or theatrics that I saw in my first few years of working on state budgets in Harrisburg. Lengthy impasses and revenue challenges were not the problems we encountered in the 2019-2020 state budget.

Instead, the debate revolved around a Rainy Day Fund (RDF), an account the state has reserved for unexpected expenses. Our last state budget set aside $300 million in the RDF.  It was the first time this amount had been deposited in nearly two decades.

State financial experts suggest setting aside enough funding to cover any losses incurred during an economic slowdown or recession.

In 2018, State Treasurer Joe Torsella found that Pennsylvania could not last one day if it had to rely on its RDF to cover all state expenses. Meanwhile, Ohio could survive on its RDF for over 23 days and West Virginia could last over 61 days. In fact, Pennsylvania and New Jersey were the only states in the entire Northeast and Mid-Atlantic that could not survive one day on reserves.

The state prioritized saving for a rainy day not only because it made good fiscal sense; it also provided taxpayers with a safety net in the event of an economic downturn.

However, despite these well-intentioned efforts by the General Assembly to set aside funding in case our economy takes a nosedive, our governor and his administration have continued to spend more money than lawmakers have authorized.  

Historically, the Governor’s Budget Office will hold mid-year budget briefings to update both the legislature and public on the state’s finances. This year, there was no public briefing by the Budget Office; only a few slides posted to the office’s website that essentially proclaimed six more months of overspending.

At the current rate, the state is on track to overspend the agreed-to state budget amount by over $750 million, far eclipsing the $300 million reserves sitting in the RDF. Last year’s overspend amount was more than $670 million.

Representative Seth Grove (R-York) and I believe the constitution is clear. Article VIII, Section 13 reads, “Operating budget appropriations made by the General Assembly shall not exceed the actual and estimated revenues and surplus available in the same fiscal year.”

When the Administration decides to spend more than they were legally appropriated, the General Assembly (and eventually the taxpayers) is handed the bill.

This overspending and bad budgeting is often lumped into the following year’s budget package, allowing the bad behavior to continue. Hundreds of millions of dollars in overspending is swept under the proverbial rug. This process lacks transparency and encourages greater overspending each and every year.

The good news is we have identified a way to stop this – but it would need the support of the General Assembly and a majority of voters in this Commonwealth. Rep. Seth Grove and I have proposed a constitutional amendment to require any overspend (or supplemental spending) to be voted on as a separate measure.

A constitutional amendment requires the General Assembly to pass the bill in two consecutive sessions. If it passes, it then goes to the voters for their approval. A constitutional amendment is the ultimate way to provide voters with a voice in the budget gimmicks that play out in Harrisburg.

Families all across the 28th District sit down at the kitchen table to review their finances weekly, monthly and annually. If you had one year where you overspent, it would be the exception and not the rule. Incurring that much debt could land you in legal trouble. However, in Harrisburg, it’s simply common practice. It is the rule, not the exception. And it needs to end.

The legislature and governor will debate a final spending number to reach the June 30, 2020 deadline to fund state government for the 2020-2021 fiscal year. However, if we do not take action to rein in overspending, that budget figure becomes just another meaningless number. It is far past time for these kinds of deceptive budget gimmicks and games to be returned to hibernation.

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