Clock ticking on planning for state budget

Pennsylvania has surmounted the first of its two springtime hurdles, the primary elections’ nomination process. Strict attention must now shift to the other hurdle — passing a 2022-23 state budget.

Ideally, budget preparation and passage should be completed before spring gives way to summer on June 21. However, more likely, a completed spending plan probably won’t be ready until just before the start of the new fiscal year on July 1, or perhaps thereafter.

Some people say stretching the process until virtually the last minute forces lawmakers to agree to concessions and provisions that they might otherwise resist — and for the governor to get on board, even though the chief executive might not be happy about many of the budget’s aspects.

Looking ahead to the budget work that is before the commonwealth’s legislative and executive branches, perhaps the most important point is the temptation to become too generous with surplus funds must be resisted. Such generosity could come back to haunt the state, despite the commonwealth’s strong fiscal condition built upon the stability that the influx of federal COVID-19 funding made possible.

Caution must be the watchword in the budget-preparation weeks ahead, especially considering the uncertainties facing the federal and states’ economies that seem to have most people concerned.

One proposed spate of bipartisan generosity already in the works would involve lowering the state’s corporate net income tax. The measure has passed the state House and is awaiting action by the Senate.

While the move would make the our state more attractive to new businesses, state officials must ascertain that the action is correct for the long term.

The same is true regarding any general state income tax reduction that might yet be under the proverbial radar. A good or not-so-good tax reduction is a great way to attract votes in the next election.

Anyone who has been following state government news in recent months knows there are causes for concern and hope.

Some of the major ones:

¯ The Department of Transportation is the focus of worry because of the expiration of the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s annual many-millions-of-dollars obligation to help fund PennDOT.

¯ Lawmakers and the governor must be fully transparent about funding of the pension funds for which state government is responsible. The first paragraph of a May 11 Wall Street Journal article should spawn inquiries in Harrisburg: “State and local government retirement funds started the year with their worst quarterly returns since the beginning of the pandemic. Things have only gone downhill since.”

¯ Lawmakers must turn their focus onto rural mental health access. Lawmakers’ obligation is to determine whether the $36.6 million from the General Fund that Gov. Tom Wolf wants to spend to restore state aid to county mental health programs is doable, too much or too little.

¯ Then there are the important issues of education funding, ongoing affordable housing needs, ongoing food security concerns and the agriculture industry in general – as well as, of course, the pandemic.

A new legislative session will begin in just over half a year. Its work will be made easier or more difficult by what happens over the next four to six weeks.


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