New Castle News


June 18, 2014

Our Opinion: Resolving state’s fiscal questions should be open process

NEW CASTLE — Pennsylvania is supposed to have a new budget in place by the end of this month.

But apparently that won’t happen. A gaping deficit of about $2 billion — caused mainly by less-than-anticipated revenue — has lawmakers and Gov. Tom Corbett scrambling for answers.

At this point, we don’t know what those answers will be. And perhaps neither do the folks in Harrisburg as they negotiate. But we presume they won’t be pleasant. Eliminating budget deficits is a harsh business.

Interestingly, there is talk of possible tax increases. In the past, Corbett has vowed to oppose all tax hikes — although some of his moves related to impact fees on shale gas drilling and transportation funding amount to that.

Now, however, the governor is saying he won’t entertain such ideas until some of his key demands are met regarding state spending, primarily his proposal for a so-called hybrid pension system for state employees and a revamping of state liquor laws.

In the past, we have expressed support for both of these concepts. But the devil is in the details. Any revamping of the pension system will have to be legal and it won’t solve immediate budget issues. And the latest talk of liquor reform — which would retain the State Store system — doesn’t strike us as much of an improvement.

And regardless of what happens with these two key issues, many other major matters surround state budget talks. Will there be tax increases of some sort? Will there be an extraction tax imposed on shale gas? Will there be cuts in key spending areas? Will there be an expansion of the Medicaid program to take advantage of federal funding?

Historically, Pennsylvania government isn’t exactly forthcoming with the people on unpopular matters. And the existing budget woes fall into that category.

With Republicans in control of both chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s mansion, there is the potential of an intra-party back room deal that can be crammed through Harrisburg with little public analysis or debate. But there seems to be enough dissension within the GOP that Democratic support may be needed for any final agreement.

Yet that alone offers no comfort in a state capital where the politicians aren’t inclined toward openness. We worry that whenever an agreement is reached behind closed doors (as it always is), the public won’t have an opportunity to properly examine the details.

That’s particularly important this time around. With so many issues hanging in Harrisburg — and so many possibilities to really mess things up for the future — oversight is crucial.

The politicians in Harrisburg may disagree. But we would note they are the ones that got the commonwealth into the current mess.

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