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By Tony May

 

In pre-Eisenhower America, every school kid was aware of Popeye, the cartoon character’s spendthrift friend, J. Wellington Wimpy, whose signature gag line was, “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.”  But, the roly poly Mr. Wimpy never paid – although he always got his hamburger.

It’s not nearly so hilarious when J. Wellington Wimpy turns out to be your state government and “I will gladly pay you Tuesday” is a basic tenet of what has passed for budgeting over the past decade or more.

The current state budget crisis isn’t Gov. Tom Wolf’s fault.  It’s not even the fault of the current Republican-controlled state legislature.  It’s been caused by application, again and again, over years and years of the “Wimpy Principal” of budgeting.  It works out like this:  If you can eat the hamburger, do it, and pretend to pay for it by shifting funds around between one state account or another to conceal the fact that the bill has been passed off down the road.

The result? What the state’s non-partisan Independent Fiscal Office has defined as a $1.9 billion “structural deficit.”

What’s that?  According to the Financial Times, it’s a “budget deficit that results from a fundamental imbalance in government receipts and expenditures, as opposed to one based on one-off or short-term factors.

In other words, it doesn’t cover new programs or policies like increasing aid to education or hiring new inspectors in the Department of Environmental Protection,  It means state government continuing existing state programs – what some call “the cost to carry” through day to day business.

Why are we talking about $1.9 billion instead of the $2.4 billion Governor Wolf says we need to balance the budget AND increase aid to education?  Because it means that even if legislators figure out some way to thwart the Governor’s goal of getting more money to urban and struggling school districts, it means there’s still an elephant lurking in the corner of the room that’s left a big, steaming pile of bills that cannot be paid without increasing some taxes or other.

Policy-makers in Harrisburg have done a disservice to taxpayers  by suggesting these bills don’t have to be paid – or don’t exist.

Yes, doing nothing is an option – one that seems to have been chosen as the least painful of the choices available.  By stretching the boundaries each time the state faces a budget stalemate, we’ve changed public policy from a hard and fast “no budget/no government” to “maybe we can pay public safety employees” to “we can pay to keep critical services going” to today’s climate where money is flowing in dribs and drabs to any wheel of government that squeaks enough.

It’s more or less the flip side of the mantra “we should budget just like a family does – if you don’t have the money, don’t spend it.”

The new government approach seems to be how most families really budget – you pay the bills you have to pay; then you pay the bills you can pay; and, if you have any money left over, you take the kids out for ice cream.

Last year, the Governor proposed the budgetary equivalent of buying a 40 foot Winnebago and taking the family on a six week vacation to Disneyland.  And the legislature said no.  This year, he’s proposed a two week camping trip involving sleeping out under the stars and roto-tilling the back yard and planting truck crops.

But there is still the reality of taxes.  Wolf says we can have the Winnebago AND the truck garden if we would just raise the personal income tax one-third of one percent (to 3.4%) and expand the sales tax to include basic cable TV, movie theater admissions and digital downloads plus enact the natural gas extraction tax and increase a couple of business taxes.  We can fill the structural deficit with just the income tax hike and the visual entertainment tax.

Or, we can gladly eat a hamburger today and pay on Tuesday.  Or not.

 

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State Sen. Daylin LeachBy Sen. Daylin Leach

This past week, I, and three members of my legislative staff flew to Denver, Colorado to see for ourselves what the complete legalization of cannabis looks like. Given the polls, what other states are doing, and the arc of history, it seems difficult to deny that legal cannabis is coming to Pennsylvania fairly soon. We wanted to make sure we understood how it works and what Colorado did right, and wrong, in an effort to ensure we do this the right way when the time comes.

We packed as much information-gathering as we could into our three days. We toured two facilities where the marijuana is grown, one lab where it is processed, one where it is tested for potency and impurities and two dispensaries, which are essentially marijuana stores. We then visited the headquarters of the National Conference of State Legislators to discuss trends in legislation.

We also tried to spend some time just interacting with Denver. We wanted to see how people were living their lives with these new policies in place. How noticeable is legal marijuana on the streets, in restaurants, at a Rockies game? Is life different? What would ending prohibition mean day-to-day here in Pennsylvania? Here is what we have found:

The thing that became most clear during our trip is what a tremendous economic opportunity this is. The larger grow facility we toured employs 65 people in high-paying horticultural jobs. The labs we saw employed doctors, medical technicians, mechanical engineers and extensive support staff. The dispensaries employed security, technicians, and even the sales force, known as “bud-tenders,” had to be highly educated about their products, and thus commanded a very good salary.

Further, the tax revenues coming into the state are astronomical. It is estimated that in the first six months of legal cannabis, the State of Colorado has pulled in well over $50 million in direct tax revenues, plus millions more from licensing fees, and indirect businesses such as paraphernalia companies, apparel, tourism, etc. Also, residential as well as warehouse real estate (that would otherwise be dilapidated and abandoned) is being snapped up at premium prices. This is all on top of the millions saved by not having to prosecute tens of thousands of people for marijuana offenses.

Beyond the money, it struck us how professional everyone involved in the business is. Cannabis is highly regulated, and these regulations are strictly enforced. So you really have to know your business in order to succeed. Less serious people who got into the legal cannabis early have largely gone out of business.

As for the impact on society, what we saw and what we heard from locals we spoke to indicates it’s all been good. One obvious benefit is that sick people who need medical marijuana are getting it. Also, good people aren’t being thrown into the criminal justice system.

But beyond the obvious, crime is down and traffic accidents are down. It is true that a higher percentage of traffic accidents involve people who test positive for pot, but you would expect that since they didn’t test for it often prior to legalization.

It was also clear that Colorado has not turned into a state full of “stoners.” There is no noticeable change in productivity, absences from work or dropping out of school. If you didn’t know marijuana was legal in Colorado, you wouldn’t guess it from being out and about in the city. Smoking is illegal in public. And although we did see a few people smoking vape pens on the streets, that was only on Saturday night, and since people also smoke tobacco from vape pens, we can’t say for sure that they were even smoking marijuana.

The bottom line is that we saw a system that is working. The marijuana workforce is professional, skilled, and dedicated to serving their customers. Business is booming to the point that more than one person we talked to likened the coming cannabis explosion to the tech explosion of the ’90s.

In Colorado, we met hard-working people doing honest labor, and happy citizens responsibly living their lives in a prosperous and healthy state. The tragedy is that all of these people, every one of them would be criminals in Pennsylvania. We would arrest them, prosecute them, incarcerate some of them and ruin all of their lives. We’d kill their business and deny sick people medicine they need.

That is the true insanity of prohibition, and the primary reason it is on its way to the ash-heap of history.

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