Two Approaches to the State Budget

Marc Stier |

It’s becoming more and more rare to see serious attempts on the part of newspapers (and their virtual counterparts) to compare policy proposals meant to deal with a serious public issue. That’s one reason I was so happy to see Tim Stuhldreher’s excellent piece, “Pennsylvania think tanks battle over remedies for $1.7 billion state budget deficit” in LancasterOnline.

The other reason I was happy is that the article demonstrates the difference between a serious proposal that actually tries to find a solution to the budget deficit—our Fair Share Tax Plan—and the Commonwealth Foundation’s right wing wish-list, which barely even gestures towards a solution.

What, according to the piece, does the Commonwealth Foundation propose to close our state budget deficit? And what’s wrong with those ideas? They propose:

Putting new state employees in a 401(k) pensions—even though Republicans have failed time and again to find such a proposal that actually reduces state spending in the next fifteen years.

Expanding charter schools—even though, under our worst-in-the-nation charter school law, charters, especially in their provision of special education, tend not only to be more costly than public schools but also take funding away from those public schools.

End donation limits on the opportunity scholarship tax credit program—even though the program is a backdoor way to fund private schools and give tax breaks to corporations that actually reduces state revenues while not saving the state any money.

Publishing labor contracts before they are finalized—even though this information is already available, there is no reason to think that greater publicity will change the contracts, and there is data shows that state employees are not remotely over-paid relative to the private sector.

Increasing work requirements for welfare—even though welfare, as traditionally understood, was repealed in the 1990s, work requirements already exist in the TANF program that replaced it, and spending on that program is a small and declining share of the state budget. Of course, the Commonwealth Foundation is not really talking about “welfare,” but about federal programs such as food stamps that (1) don’t have any impact on the state budget; (2) can’t be changed by state action alone, and (3) create very little disincentive to work while providing essential support in helping those with low incomes escape from deep poverty.

You can find fault with our proposal, and we will continue to refinine it as we learn more. But you can’t deny that we actually have some ideas about how to close the deficit without massive cuts in spending on education and human services, and without broad-based tax increases.

But the Commonwealth Foundation proposal? There is a reason they don’t have estimates that show how their proposal reduces the budget deficit. It barely does so.

And unlike the Commonwealth Foundation proposal, we want to help people with low incomes, by raising the minimum wage among other things, rather than making them suffer while doing little to address the budget deficit. The Commonwealth Foundation, on the other hand, presents us with Ebenezer Scrooge’s Christmas wish list, updated for 2016. Their goal is to reduce the relatively little money we spend on helping people with low-incomes, no matter the pain it causes them.