No One Wants Leviathan

Marc Stier |

Listen to the extremist Republicans who are blocking a Pennsylvania budget deal and you might hear the echo of American revolutionaries standing up to King George.

The stakes seem to be beating back a Governor who seeks to drastically expand the size and scope of our state government.

Need some examples?

  • The Commonwealth Foundation calls for overthrowing the cycle of ever-increasing spending and taxation.
  • Representative Russ Diamond, for whom even the Republican budget is too large, says that, “The running theme here seems to be that state governments should remain monoliths of scope.”

Putting aside the embarrassing tone of Senator Wagner, does any of this make sense? The short answer is “absolutely not.”

The standard way of measuring the size of government is to look at the share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) taken by government spending and taxes. From 1994 to 2011, state government expenditures averaged 4.71% of the state GDP. It has been remarkably stable, ranging from 4.22% to 4.90%. The last four years of draconian cuts to public education and services by the Corbett administration saw spending fall to 4.38% of GDP.

So, far from growing inexorably, government was stable in Pennsylvania – at least until Governor Corbett’s radical, and extremely unpopular, reductions in spending.

Does Governor Wolf want to reverse direction and drastically expand the government as Republicans in Harrisburg say? Again, the answer is no.

His budget proposal for the current year would still leave state expenditures at 4.65% of GDP, below the twenty-year average. And spending under the bi-partisan budget framework, to which he and the Republican leaders agreed, is even lower at 4.57%. That figure not only splits the difference between the Governor’s plan and the Republican budget (4.49%), but is close to the average of the Corbett years.

Look at state employment and the results are the similar. Far from growing, state government employs 440 fewer people than in 1990, while non-government employment has grown by 664,300.

Does Governor Wolf propose to hire thousands of new government bureaucrats with new spending? The answer here, too, is no. The governor wants to send almost all of that money to the 500 local school districts across the state. 

The truth is that the extremists in the Republican Party don’t want to stop the government from growing. They want to continue on the Tom Corbett path and shrink government more. The $1.8 billion structural deficit the state faces next year is, for them, an opportunity for more radical reductions in spending on education and human services.

This radical path not only has been rejected by Pennsylvanians, but it also ignores the experience of every advanced country, starting with our own.

The widely shared prosperity that characterized America for most of the twentieth century was created by a partnership between the public and private sectors. The entrepreneurial skill of business people and the innovations of technologists were necessary to our prosperity. But so were the public investments in a highly-educated workforce, a first class transportation and communication infrastructure, and a scientific and technological network second to none. 

Spending on those public goods made our prosperity possible. It also had two other positive consequences. It created the opportunity that ensured that the whole community would benefit from the talents and energies of everyone, and it protected those among us who, through no fault of their own, suffered from physical, emotional or intellectual disabilities.

That’s what most people in Pennsylvania want, regardless of political affiliation. They don’t want an over-weaning, all-powerful government; they want a partnership between public and private sector, one that benefits all of us

And what do the extremist Republicans want? Only, it seems, to cut taxes. The Republicans say tax cuts increase our prosperity. But $2.4 billion a year in corporate tax cuts gave us a structural deficit, not economic growth. Only the rich and corporations benefited.

No one wants a Leviathan in Pennsylvania – an overwhelming, all-consuming government. But most of us want the kind of government that once brought everyone opportunity and prosperity. That’s the common sense view Pennsylvanians voted for in 2014 that the extremist Republicans are rejecting today.