John Baer: Guv scores a 'C' on first budget test

File photo
File photo (If you average the grade assigned to Gov. Corbett by think tanks on the left and right, then he just passes. This suggests that Corbett, by not pleasing either end of the ideological scale, pleased the political center.)
Posted: July 11, 2011

WHAT GRADE WOULD you give Gov. Corbett's first budget?

If you're a Philly teacher facing job loss, I'm guessing an F.

If you're a western Pennsylvania natural-gas driller, I'm guessing an A.

But what about the vast in-betweens? Will the new budget dramatically affect the average citizen's quality of life for good, bad - or even at all?

As dust settles over Corbett's no-new-taxes/cut-spending budget and Democrats predict higher local taxes and middle-class/poorer-class suffering, I chatted up think-tank types on opposite ends of the spectrum.

Interestingly, neither end is happy.

"I'd give it a B-minus or a C-plus," says Nathan Benefield, director of policy analysis for the right-leaning Commonwealth Foundation.

Benefield notes that Corbett failed to get school vouchers and flubbed contract negotiations with state-employee unions.

After tough talk about 4 percent salary cuts and health-insurance givebacks, the guv agreed to 11 percent raises over four years and no change in health benefits for three years.

Benefield says the deal will cost taxpayers $160 million more by 2015.

More on this later.

Still, Benefield and other fiscal conservatives say that even though they'd like deeper spending cuts, they're basically satisfied with the new overall budget number of $27.15 billion, a 4 percent reduction of about $1 billion.

And Harrisburg's ruling Republicans - in a demonstration of just how low the bar is - tout the fact that the budget was on time (after eight years of late budgets under Ed Rendell), as if actually performing the sole required function of the Legislature should be a source of pride.

This is like any of us bragging to bosses: "Hey, look, we showed up for work today."

But back to the budget.

"A grade? D," says Sharon Ward, director of the left-leaning Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.

"The cuts to higher education already translated into higher tuition," Ward says. (Temple just went up 10 percent for instate students.) She adds that deep cuts to public schools already are forcing layoffs (Philly plans to cut more than 900 teachers) as the state sits on $785 million from higher-than-expected tax collections, and declines to tax Marcellus Shale.

"We're in an economic recovery that's still fragile," says Ward. "This budget makes it harder to recover . . . Its cuts are affecting middle-class families and the knowledge-based economy."

Still, if you average the grade levels assigned by Benefield and Ward, you get a C, or your basic passing, acceptable but not-so-great grade.

This suggests that Corbett passed his first test and, by not pleasing either end of the ideological scale, pleased the political center.

My caveats: Poorer school districts are disproportionately harmed by a state formula that unfairly allows most districts to hoard reserve funds, the Legislature gave the administration free rein in setting new welfare standards likely to punish the needy, and promised "shared sacrifice" isn't happening.

Members of state unions, the executive branch, the judiciary and the Legislature gave up nothing. Union contracts were settled with raises either in the interest of an "on time" budget or as cover so that the other branches can keep all they have.

This budget reflects a philosophy that less government/less spending is good - except when the spending maintains the pay and perks of those in government.

That will be lost on most. What will be remembered is that Corbett kept his no-tax promise and beat the budget deadline.

In Pennsylvania, that's more than enough to get a passing grade.

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