Tom Corbett has his budget, and it's safe to say he is not going for the title of Education Governor.
As we are painfully aware in Philadelphia, public education took the big hit in the new state budget, signed by Corbett Thursday night. Here's the scorecard: the basic-education subsidy down $422 million (minus 7.2 percent); a popular block-grant program used by many districts to have full-day kindergarten down $159 million (minus 61 percent); a fund that spent $224 million last year to reimburse local district for some of the costs of charter schools taken down to zero (minus 100 percent).
A hundred million here. A hundred million there. Pretty soon it adds up to real money. Once you do add up all the pluses and minuses, overall the state will spend $962 million less this year (minus 3.4 percent).
But that doesn't tell the whole story.
The budget story this year has been framed by two issues: Will it pass on time? Why is Corbett picking on education?
But, the larger issue the state had to confront was how to make up for a hole left by the end of federal stimulus money.
Last year, the state got $3 billion in stimulus money from Washington and then-Gov. Ed Rendell used most of it to prop up education and welfare programs. Everyone knew then that the money would disappear this year, and it did.
In the end, the legislature decided those departments that benefited the most from the federal stimulus dollars would lose the most. They were not very successful at the Department of Public Welfare because so much of its spending is driven by formulas determined by outside forces; i.e., the number of poor people.
Corbett took a major whack at state funding for higher education, to the consternation of the state-owned colleges and Lincoln, Penn State, Pitt, and Temple. He wanted to cut state funding to these institutions 50 percent. The legislature intervened and threw more money into that pot, but spending in this category is still down 21 percent. (Last year, these so-called nonpreferred appropriations got $657 million from the state. This year they will get $514 million.)
The schools will make part of that up with tuition increases. The state-owned schools (West Chester, Kutztown, Cheyney, etc.) already announced a 7.5 percent increase in tuition for the next school year.
President Obama dispatched the stimulus money to the states to help them get through the recession. It was designed to buy time, and it succeeded. As the economy improves, state tax revenue is going up. In fact, the state is likely to begin the new fiscal year with a $650 million surplus, which became a bone of contention at the end of the budget process.
Democrats wanted to use that money to ameliorate the cuts in education. Corbett and the Republicans, who run the show, decided to keep most of it for a Rainy Day fund. (Note to Corbett: It's raining in Philadelphia.) As Sharon Ward of the liberal-leaning nonprofit Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center put it: the state decided to do less with more.
If you subtract the federal stimulus money and count only state funds, the budget actually went up. Counting only state funds, the budget totaled $25.1 billion in the fiscal year that just ended; next year it will be $27.2 billion.
To put it another way, the state had a $3 billion hole because of the end of the federal stimulus money, and it made up $2 billion of that hole through increased state tax revenue. The other $1 billion it got through cuts.
But what to make of Corbett? He can declare victory because the budget was passed on time (with 13 minutes to spare), but overall he seems detached, making significant policy changes (in state funding for public education) without explaining them.
Unlike his bullish fellow Republican, Gov. Christie of New Jersey, Corbett does not want to engage. Throughout the entire budget season, all he did was repeat his mantra about holding the line on spending and taxes. He let the Republicans in the legislature worry about the details - and take the heat.
If Christie is an action movie, Corbett is a still life.
None of this bodes well for Philadelphia, which is another way of saying we're screwed. Philadelphia is among the many things Corbett is not interested in. We are a big, relentlessly Democratic city with teeming masses, many of whom are poor people whose darker skin tones are not country club tans.
Next year, Corbett will probably get around to taking some whacks at welfare, refuse to increase funding for education, maybe suggest business tax cuts - and then go back to sleep.
While the state snoozes, we feel the pain.