Every penny counts
Deficits and election years are a perilous combination - all the more so this year when the governor's seat, the entire House and half of the Senate are on the ballot.
All of those incumbents are going to try to convince the voters they are doing a great job while trying to cover a deficit projected to be at least $500 million. And, because revenue not realized this year can't be anticipated next year, the next budget actually is short about twice that, $1 billion.
So, every penny counts. Or at least it should. Money that doesn't count is the scores of millions of public dollars squirreled away by the Legislature for its own use - a luxury not afforded to school districts, local governments, social service agencies and millions of Pennsylvanians who rely at least partially on state-funded services.
The House has announced that an independent audit of legislative accounts simply can't be ready by the time that the lawmakers must deal with the budget. That, in effect, means that taxpayers will not know how much of its money the Legislature is sitting on as public services go begging. It also means that there is scant chance that the Legislature will use any of the money to help mitigate the deficit.
Historically, lawmakers have been anything but reluctant to hoard public money. In 2007, it held more than $210 million in reserve. In 2011, it was $140 million.
The theory for keeping such large sums in the cookie jar is that the Legislature needs to fund its own operations in case it gets into an impasse with the governor. At $140 million, for example, the surplus would enable the Legislature to fund its regular operations for about four months.
Of course, the Republican governor has Republican majorities in both houses of the Legislature, so the odds of a lengthy impasse threatening the Legislature is remote, at best.
Legislatures should do whatever is necessary to expedite the audit, which is overdue. And they should commit to using most of whatever surplus they're hoarding to mitigate the deficit's impact on taxpayers and crucial services.