LancasterOnline: Editorial: No Budget Should Mean No Labor Day Holiday for Top Pennsylvania Leaders

THE ISSUE

The state budget is now 65 days late. Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale says he will keep track of the effects of Harrisburg’s tardiness in upcoming audits — costs such as interest expenses and penalties for late payments to a school district’s vendors. DePasquale says he plans to release the numbers on those costs as he completes 50 audits this fall and eventually expects to compile a total from all districts.

Sure, it’s not easy to come up with a state budget.

And sure, we know it’s even harder when that budget must be agreeable to Republican majorities in both houses of the General Assembly that oppose tax increases and to Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat who promised voters that he would add an extraction tax on natural gas and increase education spending.

But does it really need to be this difficult?

At a news conference Tuesday in the Capitol, Auditor General DePasquale said he thinks agreeing on education spending, pension reform and how to handle Pennsylvania’s state-owned liquor sales should not take long.

“I think if everyone locked themselves in the Governor’s Residence for a weekend, and were willing to come up with a deal on those three things, they could do it within a weekend,” the auditor general said.

Perfect timing. Labor Day is a long weekend. It’s time to get this done.

Lawmakers and the governor should find a compromise that will reduce the state’s pension costs (now $53 billion in the red), sell off the state liquor stores, charge drillers for the gas they take from the Marcellus Shale and, most importantly, boost state funding of public education.

Granted, Pennsylvanians have endured long budget stalemates before: Gov. Ed Rendell signed the 2009-10 budget in October and the 2003-04 budget in December.

But, with the percentage of state funding comparatively low (45th among the 50 states and Washington, D.C.) and declining in Pennsylvania, this problem grows worse for school districts that depend more on the state than local taxpayers.

Critics will counter that Pennsylvania ranks seventh or eighth in per-pupil spending (depending on the source cited) but this avoids the issue of equity. Wolf also campaigned on a promise to reduce the difference in school funding based on a child’s ZIP code.

Given calls to spend smarter, not more — on everything including public education — it would be a shame if the stalemate were to force any Pennsylvania school district to spend money on late penalties and interest.

The pinch of the stalemate is greater on School District of Lancaster and Columbia Borough School District because larger shares of their budgets, 45 percent and 48 percent, respectively, come from the state. But, at some point, all school districts will be affected.

And K-12 education is not alone in feeling the effects.

The co-owner and five employees at Little People Day Care in Columbia have taken pay cuts because the state has not paid the nearly $30,000 it owes over two months for 20 children enrolled at the school through Pennsylvania’s Pre-K Counts program.

Co-owner Syamal Bhattacharya said he has taken no salary and his employees agreed to pay cuts of 10 percent or 15 percent each. Next week, Bhattacharya said, he has a meeting at the bank to talk about a loan.

Bhattacharya hopes to get his employees back up to full pay, and thinks he can, if the state starts paying its bills by the end of this year.

Read the full editorial here.

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