EVERY TIME the state budget rolls around, we can count on Harrisburg to provide a few months of theater, as the governor makes his priorities clear, and the Legislature pushes back with its own priorities.
We usually consider this theatrical performance part of the process, and eventually count on both sides settling down to reality and resolving their differences. Obviously, the level of theatrics is dictated by who's in the governor's mansion and which party dominates the Legislature. Rendell's two terms as a Democratic governor provided high dramatics especially when Republicans took over the House.
The drama surrounding the Corbett budget is different. In fact, it seems like a different play altogether: not so much a Gilbert & Sullivan "HMS Battle of the Budget" as something from Strindberg, a darker production called "A Million Ways to Punish You."
If you care about children, poor people, education, health care or the environment, the budget proposed first by Gov. Corbett and recently amended by House Republicans could barely get worse. Both feature steep cuts to higher ed, basic educatio and the Department of Public Welfare, holding the line at state spending to $27.3 billion - which is $700 million less than this year's budget. The House did restore some of the Corbett cuts to higher education.
But it does get worse for every taxpayer in the state, and not because spending is being cut. What's also being cut is a fuller discussion of both sides of the ledger - spending and revenues.
The state budget must deal with a large deficit. But the factors mitigating that crisis are barely mentioned. They include the $500 million surplus that the budget crafters are leaving untouched. It also conveniently ignores the higher revenues that the state has collected.
According to a report released Tuesday by the Rockefeller Institute, revenue collections have shown strong growth in most states. Pennsylvania is no exception. In the first quarter of 2011, revenues from personal income tax rose 7.5 percent; sales taxes generated 4.2 percent more than anticipated and corporate income tax saw a rise of 3.9 percent. (The state's gain in corporate-income-tax revenues are among the lowest of most of the states reporting.)
There's little mention of these bright spots, mainly because they don't conform to the accepted talking points that would characterize previous administrations' reckless spending.
Budgets are about priorities. This is the time for taxpayers to speak up to their elected officials about their priorities. Is the strategy of cutting higher and basic education the right strategy for the state's future? Should we really be increasing spending on the corrections budget? And why are we giving big tax breaks to the Marcellus Shale drilling industry when revenue from taxes or fees could not only help the state budget, but ease the burden on local communities dealing with the environmental impact?
Taxpayers should let their elected officials know. Time is of the essence, although there is a window of opportunity to write your emails and letters: On Monday evening, when you're facing the prospect of going back to work after the Memorial Day holiday, think about this: Legislators are taking the entire week off to celebrate and won't be back in session until June 6. *