ROBERT SWIFT: Capitol Matters: On target, or missing the mark
HARRISBURG - Since Gov. Tom Corbett unveiled his $29.4 billion state budget last week debate has gone on over whether the governor's spending priorities are on target or missing the mark.
And a second debate has erupted over the proposed revenue sources to prop up the budget.
Pennsylvania's requirement for an annual balanced budget creates an inherent tension between the need for a bill where expenditures and revenue are evenly matched and a forward-looking document that charts a fiscal blueprint for future years.
In flush times, lawmakers like to talk about multi-year budgeting based on revenue that comes in year after year. But Pennsylvania hasn't known flush times since 2007.
That creates difficult problems like this year's projection that costs for public pensions and medical assistance will outpace anticipated state tax revenue growth.
Part of Mr. Corbett's plan to erase this deficit rests in tapping what are called one-time revenue sources. That means the money won't be available for the next budget.
The governor proposes to transfer money among some special purpose state funds that exist apart from the taxpayer-supported General Fund, the one that must be balanced.
This year the Tobacco Settlement Fund, the Lottery Fund and the Oil and Gas Lease Fund are in the sights. The governor wants to use $225 million of tobacco fund investments and cash reserves as part of the state employer contribution to the Pennsylvania School Employees Retirement System.
He would transfer an additional $67 million from the tobacco fund to help fund nursing home care.
The tobacco fund was created a dozen years ago to channel annual payments from tobacco companies as a result of a public health lawsuit settlement to pay for a variety of health-related and biotech programs. The governor wants to shift $130 million of funding for home and community-based services for seniors from the General Fund to the Lottery Fund.
He proposes to generate an estimated $75 million for the General Fund by leasing more state forest and park land for gas drilling, primarily underground drilling to reach subsurface Commonwealth-owned gas deposits.
Pennsylvania established the Oil and Gas Fund as the depository for revenue from drilling on state forests and parks, but in the initial year at least this new revenue would go to the general fund.
"He (Corbett) is playing political games and using one-time budget gimmicks to balance his election-year budget," said House Democratic Appropriations Chairman Joseph Markosek, D-25, Monroeville.
The state faces a budget squeeze due to a number of factors, including the pension cost spike and loss of federal aid, said Corbett spokesman Jay Pagni.
The governor would rather tap one-time revenue sources than ask taxpayers to pay more, he added.
ROBERT SWIFT is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers, of which The Daily/Sunday Review is a part.