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.