by Senator Ryan P. Aument
This week Governor Wolf will deliver his second budget address to the General Assembly to outline his priorities and ideas for the 2016-17 fiscal year.
Remarkably – and for the first time in modern Pennsylvania history – our Governor will address the General Assembly without the work for the current fiscal year’s spending plan being finalized.
Last year we experienced the longest budget stalemate ever, and for many, it remains unresolved. Today, our schools, agricultural programs, corrections department, hospitals, and many health care related programs remain either underfunded or not funded at all.
During the past several weeks, I traveled the 36th Senatorial District to meet with school Superintendents and other school district leaders to talk about the impact that the state budget impasse has had on their operations, to learn about the challenges they face in trying to adopt preliminary school budgets with so much left undone in Harrisburg, and to hear other issues of concern to them as they do the important work of educating our children.
I also spoke with many residents, business leaders and others who expressed to me that the ongoing budget dispute was not just disruptive – it was economically harmful, as nonprofits and others had to actually borrow money to continue to operate in the absence of state funding.
Certainly, we can all agree that in today’s economy, wasting money – for any reason, including failing to enact a timely state budget – is inappropriate and takes away from the core mission of our social service agencies, schools and other nonprofit partners who do critical work people depend on.
In response to some of these concerns, last Spring I introduced legislation that would guarantee basic education funding in the event a state budget is not enacted by August 15, which would give the General Assembly and the Governor 45 days after the June 30 budget deadline to resolve their issues. Had this measure been the law this year, no school district would have ever needed to consider closing their doors or not making timely payroll.
Now, given the extraordinary way the 2015-16 state budget has stalled and knowing that this week we will be asked to consider deliberating on the 2016-17 budget, I believe it is time to begin talking about larger reforms that could be offered to help alleviate the many negative results of the current situation.
For example, my predecessor, Senator Mike Brubaker, offered legislation that would establish a biennial (two-year) budget cycle in Pennsylvania.
The proposal would require the enactment of a budget covering a two-year period, which would coincide with the existing legislative session, which runs on a two year cycle.
There are many benefits to a biennial budget, including increasing efficiency and productivity in state government.
Executive agencies would be given an opportunity to engage in longer-range planning and we could more effectively incorporate a broader, long-term perspective in how, where and what the General Assembly invests in.
Another benefit would be that funding would be more predictable.
Schools and other programs could focus on their primary missions instead of waiting for spending numbers to be finalized and would be able to more effectively manage their resources as a whole instead of having to hedge against unpredictable state contributions. For example, school districts must adopt a preliminary budget now, yet they have no idea of how much state funding they will get until June 30, at the earliest.
Other advantages to biennial budgets would be the ability to negotiate more comprehensive agreements directing funding and state policy and reduce the costs associated with the current annual process, which can be time-consuming, repetitive and inefficient. Repeating this fight every year only contributes to the complexity of the budget process and encourages delay.
For me, one of the largest benefits of a two-year budget cycle would be that the General Assembly could finally invest the time that is necessary to exercise oversight over the executive departments and make sure that the monies we are spending are being put to good use.
One of my biggest frustrations in Harrisburg is the lack of accountability in programs and service delivery. Instead of arguing about how much money we should be spending on an annual basis, I think it would be much more beneficial to agree to a two-year spending figure, then manage the implementation of that spending so we can finally fix the underlying problems that prevent us from achieving our common goals.
Biennial budgeting is not new to Pennsylvania. Until November 3, 1959, the Commonwealth had a biennial budget.
I believe that it may be time to revisit the decision to move away from biennial budgets in favor of annual spending plans.
While this will not immediately resolve the very real disagreements that are occurring over the future of our state – debates including whether or not to raise taxes and drastically increase spending – we all need to promote reforms that offer ways to better manage state government to the benefit of the people of Pennsylvania.