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Editorial: Finally, a budget

Pennsylvania's prolonged budget fiasco has made it painfully clear that Harrisburg must prevent such a mess from happening again. The deadline for approving a budget was June 30. The stalemate was the longest in the nation, and it harmed citizens across the commonwealth.

Pennsylvania's prolonged budget fiasco has made it painfully clear that Harrisburg must prevent such a mess from happening again.

The deadline for approving a budget was June 30. The stalemate was the longest in the nation, and it harmed citizens across the commonwealth.

State employees didn't get paid temporarily, and social-service agencies were forced to cut programs, lay off workers, or close altogether. Low-income residents were among the hardest-hit. The cutbacks affected everything from food banks to child-care services.

Gov. Rendell and the legislature know they have a responsibility to do better. But that didn't stop them from waging a bitter, partisan struggle for more than 100 days while citizens became the collateral damage.

It was the seventh consecutive late budget under Rendell, and the outlook for next year isn't any better. Not only does the weak economy threaten to hold down tax collections, but 2010 also is an election year for most of the legislature. The Republican-led Senate will be even less motivated to compromise with a lame-duck governor.

But there are steps the legislature should take to prevent another such embarrassment. Some of them were outlined at a forum last week in State College with representatives of good-government groups Common Cause/PA, DemocracyRising/PA, and the League of Women Voters.

For example, there should be firm deadlines for the House and Senate approving a budget, and financial penalties on legislators who fail to meet those deadlines. If there's no budget by July 1, all members of the legislature, the governor, and cabinet secretaries would forfeit their salaries.

The governor presents his budget in February, but too often the House and Senate leaders of both parties delay real budget work until May or even June. Also, holding public hearings early on the largest parts of the governor's proposal, such as education and public safety, would give more momentum to the process and involve more legislators sooner.

The governor and legislators shouldn't be paid while a budget impasse drags on. They weren't paid this summer when the deadlock began, but legislators were able to collect paychecks after Rendell signed a partial "bridge" budget in August to pay state workers.

Others collected "per diem" expenses for traveling to Harrisburg. For example, Rep. Ron Waters (D., Phila.) received more than $7,400 in per diems in July and August. In those two months alone, legislators collected more than $530,000 in expenses. Cutting off pay and reimbursements might get everyone in a more conciliatory mood.

Some states, such as North Carolina, engage in two-year budgeting. That could limit the partisan wrangling, but it also might necessitate endless tinkering with the budget in lean years when tax collections drop.

Others have suggested that Harrisburg needs an independent budget agency, similar to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, to give revenue and spending estimates that both parties can abide. That's worth examining, as is a proposal by the conservative Commonwealth Foundation for quarterly budget reviews that would mandate cuts, for example, if tax collections are dropping.

Of course, most of these proposals involve the legislature's getting tough with itself. That can only happen if enough rank-and-file legislators get fed up with their leaders' not leading.