John Baer: This state budget will be different: The work is all done

Posted: March 07, 2011

THE STATE BUDGET that Gov. Corbett presents tomorrow is uncommon - for three reasons.

First, we go in with no specifics; details are as tightly guarded as the formula for Coca-Cola.

Past governors routinely leaked portions of plans such as new initiatives or tax cuts to pave the way for acceptance.

But Corbett's budget secretary, Charles Zogby, last week defined this budget as a "day of reckoning," so the only paving is on a path to pain.

Every indication is that it's a path many will travel.

Second, whatever Corbett offers should be taken seriously.

This is different. Budgets that Ed Rendell proposed were just one step toward a final product. Corbett's proposal will be, essentially, what will be.

Even if lawmakers tinker with specific line items, "I think you'll see the spend-number stay the same," says House Appropriations Committee boss Rep. Bill Adolph, R-Delco.

I think he's right.

And that "spend-number" is expected to be about $27 billion, or $1 billion less than last year's figure.

Don't count on arguments. Corbett's party controls the process. There's no money to fight over. And, since there's no good news, lawmakers will want to make this more "Corbett's budget" than their own.

After eight straight late budgets, they'll pass this one early and get out of town to avoid wading through daily protests.

Third, balancing a reduced spending plan with a projected deficit of $3 billion to $4 billion without raising taxes means broader, deeper cuts than Pennsylvania's seen, possibly ever.

Unlike the feds, the state by law must balance its budget. Whatever the deficit is must be covered by cuts or revenue. Corbett's no-new-taxes/no-new-fees pledge takes revenue off the table, leaving only cuts.

"People are prepared for it and now's the time to do it," says Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre County.

He says he has no details despite two meetings with the governor at the mansion: "He's a prosecutor. Information goes in, not much comes out." But Corman expects no fiscal tricks and no surprises, just cuts.

As such, education, welfare and health services will take big hits because they have big pots of money.

That's bad news for Philly, something Mayor Nutter briefly acknowledged in his budget address Thursday. Expected state (and federal) cuts, said Nutter, carry the potential for a "devastating impact" on the city.

And former House Appropriations Committee chairman Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Philly, said coming cuts mean "cost-shifting to local governments who then cut services or raise taxes" across the state.

Doesn't matter; state cuts are coming.

What we'll hear tomorrow is likely less Wisconsin-style union-busting, more budget-control/free-market advocacy: fiscal responsibility, school vouchers and privatization; selling the State Stores (though not for revenue this year), and maybe combining or reducing some state agencies.

I hope we hear calls for lawmakers and top officials to scale back perks, because this budget surely calls for those with less to make do with less. Folks living at the margins of society won't find comfort here.

There'll be Democratic clamor about government turning its back on its people. And there's a 10-hour interfaith prayer vigil on the Capitol steps starting at 5:30 a.m. tomorrow to draw attention to budget impacts on the poor.

But here's the thing: The debate's over. It took place during last year's election. Republicans won the governorship and Legislature on promises of no new taxes and less spending.

They're now poised to deliver on those promises.

All that remains are the consequences.

Many citizens who rely on government services, salaries and benefits no doubt will feel abandoned after tomorrow. Many taxpayers not directly reliant on government no doubt will feel vindicated. Either way, we're getting an uncommon budget. Of that there is no doubt.

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