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Petty Politics, PA

You won’t be surprised to hear that our legislators have been busy but what exactly have they been preoccupied with should disappoint you. 

For the second year in a row, legislators have a spending plan for next year’s budget. The problem is we don’t have a plan to pay for it. That’s as big a problem as it sounds and the consequences will grow more painful the longer the problem remains unsolved.

Despite the rhetoric about needing to pass a budget that ensures we live within our means, the discord between the PA House and Senate Republican leaders is likely to increase the cost of operating the state. 

The powerful Wall Street rating agency Standard and Poor’s declared last week, “While it is not uncommon for states to have periodic structural imbalance, Pennsylvania’s chronic misalignment and eroding general fund position, particularly during a period of economic growth, demonstrate a pattern of financial mismanagement. If legislators enact a budget that relies on what we view as optimistic assumptions or one-time sources, we would likely lower the rating.” 

When it comes to putting the taxes and fees in place needed to pay for the budget, brace yourselves for the rating to drop, just as it did last year.  A lower credit rating simply means the state pays more in interest payments to Wall Street banks and wealthy investors.

The battle lines over how to extract more revenue from sin taxes have been drawn and the positions appear intractable. Instead of finding a real revenue solution, here is what’s been happening in Harrisburg:

Out of left field, on the last day the House was in session, the leadership surfaced a Medicaid bill  (HB 59) that put the health care for severely disabled children and very sick adults at risk.  Senate leaders were as surprised as the families who will be affected by the move. Meanwhile the Senate moved a bill  (SB 6) which makes the scant $421 a month that poor single parents with two children can receive in cash assistance, even harder to get.

Random education bills that please narrow constituencies but do little to improve the quality of education also crossed the chambers.  For instance, the Senate sent to the House a bill (SB 383) to permit school personnel to bring guns to school knowing the Governor would veto the bill.  And the well intentioned mandatory civics education bill (SB 783) was sent to the House, but without providing funds to enable districts to teach them.

Adding to the sense of random activity, Senate Republican leaders made a full court press to get members to hold their nose and pass a sweeping bill to enable charter expansion even in the mostegregiously underperforming charters in the state. 

Here again, the funds to support charter enrollment were missing, but, for cover, a “commission” to study how best to deal with the charter funding issues was tucked into the bill.  By removing any controls on the ravenous activities of the cyber charter sector from the bill, the Senate knows the House is unlikely to even consider the measure before they leave for good this summer.

It’s obvious that these bills give leaders and members plenty to share with interested residents.  But they are simply the sideshow to distract from the dangerous budget impasse.  State Treasurer Torsella starting ringing the alarm bell today pointing out that without a revenue plan, the state will run out of money to pay its bills in August.  

The unfortunate reality is that low priority or highly rhetorical bills and their low yield solutions are in play because actual issues voters care about require hard work and political compromise.

Tragically, in Petty Politics, PA, our streets are one-ways, dead-ends and roundabouts that just keep us spinning. Isn’t it time we demand roads that can actually move us forward?


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“Have any of you asked the poor that you say you’re advocating for what they really want or need?” Denise Clay, journalist, who has grown weary of anti-Beverage Tax who assert low-income neighborhoods need cheap soda more than they need community schools, pre-k, rec centers.