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Three big lies in Corbett's budget address

GOV. CORBETT presented his budget on Tuesday, and it included big-time cuts - nearly $2.6 billion - from vital areas like education. Any time an elected official proposes that deep a cut, he needs to justify it by explaining why it's necessary. And Corbett did explain. Unfortunately, the story the governor told about Pennsylvania's budget was more of a tall tale.

Corbett didn't get his facts wrong. But his big picture certainly distorted the truth. We're calling them "Three big lies."

LIE NO. 1: Pennsylvania's $4 billion deficit was caused by over-spending.

"We must spend no more than we have. We must not lay waste our powers by breaking the bank." - Tom Corbett

Before Corbett gave his address, his administration went on the offensive, arguing that the state needed to cut programs for one simple reason: Pennsylvania has a spending problem.

He implied that if the state were a household, we would have been the family that bought an expensive sports car, only to find that we now can't pay our rent.

But that's not true. The state budget deficit wasn't caused by extravagant spending; it was caused by a sudden drop in revenue due to the national recession. We're more like the household (and there are plenty in Pennsylvania) where someone got laid off.

This is the situation in most states. If overspending were the problem, a low-spending state like Texas would have escaped unharmed. Instead, Texas has a two-year deficit of more than $25 billion, thanks to same thing that killed Pennsylvania's budget: lagging tax revenue.

This is an inconvenient reality for Corbett because it means the programs he's cutting might not be luxuries after all.

LIE NO. 2: Pennsylvania misused its stimulus funds.

"They applied federal stimulus money to the operating budget. The only thing it stimulated was the appetite to spend more."

 - Tom Corbett

Part of the reason the state has a deficit, Corbett suggested, is that it misspent its portion of the $787 billion federal stimulus. The governor believes spending the one-time funds on operating expenses was a gimmick that undermined the state's fiscal stability.

The problem with this argument is that Pennsylvania spent stimulus funds exactly how it was supposed to. The direct relief to states was meant to provide a temporary cushion for government coffers hurt by lagging tax revenue - the money would get state governments through the short-term lapse until the economy recovered and tax revenue returned to normal.

The stimulus funding ran out last year because federal lawmakers assumed economic growth would have resumed by then. That's clearly not the case, which is the real reason Pennsylvania still has a deficit. Now, maybe you think this means the stimulus was a mistake (or maybe you think it means the federal government should provide more aid to the states, until the economy fully recovers). Regardless, it's grossly unfair to suggest that Pennsylvania made its deficit worse by accepting the stimulus.

LIE NO. 3: The prison budget increase is due to criminals, not poor policy.

"In 1993, Pennsylvania had 24,000 men and women in its prisons. Today that number is over 50,000. This number speaks to a failure. Sometimes it's a failure in our schools, or in our society, but ultimately in the personal character of the criminal."

- Tom Corbett

Corbett's budget includes a $186 million increase for the state Department of Corrections. That's an 11 percent jump, part of a long trend of skyrocketing state prison costs. Corbett attributes this trend to the personal failings of the people filling the prisons.

But that's not true, either.

Pennsylvania's prison population has grown by 500 percent since 1980 despite few changes in crime patterns. According to the state Commission on Sentencing, a bipartisan panel created by the legislature, the huge jump is due mostly to mandatory sentences for petty drug crimes.

Throwing the book at minor offenders is a policy choice made by state lawmakers.

If Corbett were serious about cutting all costs, including prisons, he'd identify the problem as our drug-sentencing laws. Instead, he's throwing money at a broken system and claiming it's out of his control.

It's not easy to fill a $4 billion hole, but the first step is correctly identifying the problem.

The moral of Tom Corbett's budget story is that much of it is just that: a convenient story.

Ben Waxman reports for "It's Our Money," a joint project between the Daily News and WHYY, funded by the William Penn Foundation.

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