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Some rare not-so-terrible news about Pennsylvania | John Baer

A new national survey of states says Pennsylvania, after years of decline, is actually getting better.

The State Capitol in Harrisburg. After a few years of decline, Pennsylvania improved in one financial publication's ranking of the best and worst states.
The State Capitol in Harrisburg. After a few years of decline, Pennsylvania improved in one financial publication's ranking of the best and worst states.Read more

Believe it or not, there’s some news about the Keystone State that isn’t all that discouraging.

It’s not great news. But neither is it the sort of appalling news I routinely comment on regarding our feeble legislature, putrid politics, and too-often-guileful government.

Readers frequently say I depress or enrage them by pointing out, for example, legislative pay raises, budgetary shenanigans, and other shortcomings that make Pennsylvania such a land of low expectations.

But now – and, coincidentally, in the spirit of the holiday season – I can offer a glimmer of positivity.

I hope you’re sitting down.

The annual ranking of best states/worst states by the New York-based financial news firm 24/7 Wall St. shows Pennsylvania jumped up 10 spots after years of decline.

Yep. We went from a nationally embarrassing 46th (down there with the likes of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana) to a mediocre 36th -- which isn’t terrific but it’s a move in the right direction.

The rankings were released Friday.

And while they note Pennsylvania is the worst state in the Northeast except for Rhode Island (40th) and, of course, New Jersey (37th), a mid-year budget briefing at the state Capitol on Tuesday suggests there are better days ahead.

Gov. Wolf’s budget secretary, Randy Albright, said the 2019-20 budget will be balanced, with a surplus. He offered a forecast of personal-income growth and lower unemployment. And he rejected last month’s report by the state’s Independent Fiscal Office that projected a $1.5 billion to $1.7 billion deficit in the coming year.

So, you know, happy days are here again. And pay no attention to the fact that Albright’s leaving his post at the end of the month. He said we’ll duck a deficit with continued spending restraints and cost reductions and whatever Wolf puts in his next budget proposal in February.

Remember, miracles happen. We’re a state that in just two years went from certain collapse without big tax increases to surviving just fine without big tax increases (though mostly through budget trickery and expanded gambling).

Meanwhile, 24/7 Wall St. says the state has a relatively weak job market, huge public pension obligations, and rising health and human-services costs, and tends to fund budgets with one-time revenue sources that lead to deficits.

Sure sounds like us.

Also, relatively high unemployment despite a growth economy. The U.S. Labor Department ranks us 33rd among states (tied with five others, including Maryland and New Jersey) at 4.1 percent. The national rate is 3.7 percent.

But Albright contends “new employment” in Pennsylvania is tracking the national average. So, that’s good.

And even though U.S. Commerce Department personal-income growth measurements through the first two quarters of 2018 put Pennsylvania last among mid-Atlantic states and 46th nationally, with just 2.9 percent growth, take heart. The state forecasts 4 percent growth in personal income in 2019.

I guess ya just gotta believe.

Which states are best and worst in the new 24/7 Wall St. survey?

Top three are Oregon, Utah, and Washington. Bottom three are Alaska, New Mexico, and Louisiana.

Keys to top rankings include a state’s general economy, GDP growth, population growth, well-run budgets, and sound credit ratings, according to 24/7 Wall St.’s editor-in-chief, Doug McIntyre.

So, mostly states outside the Rust Belt.

The only state east of the Mississippi River breaking the top 10 is Massachusetts, ranked ninth. Its standing is attributed to, among other things, low unemployment, generous benefits (the nation’s highest weekly unemployment insurance payment), and mandated health coverage since before the Affordable Care Act.

Delaware ranks 12th based on a perfect credit rating, high per-capita income, and no taxes on sales, property, or corporate earnings.

(Did you just start packing?)

But all wishing and wonkiness aside, and no doubt due to national economic growth, Pennsylvania’s in better shape than just a year or two ago.

For those who like government cost reduction, the number of state workers has dropped to a 40-year low, at 72,700. And the percentage of residents without health insurance dropped from 14 percent in 2015 to 5.5 percent today.

And better’s good. As long as it continues to get better.