State Budget Gridlock Necessitates Process Reforms

Senator Ryan P. Aument

As the spring season quickly approaches us, the bleakness of winter will hopefully soon be fading away as we welcome warmer weather that will usher in the annual rite of renewal.

Farmers will return to the beautiful fields in Lancaster County, gardens will again be planted, flowers will begin to bloom and children will again play outside under the brilliance of sunny days that quietly move us toward summertime.

Unfortunately, while we greet the ending of the cold, dark days of wintertime, we cannot yet celebrate the end of the ongoing state budget issues facing our Commonwealth.

While the 2015-16 state budget has been signed into law, Governor Wolf’s line-item vetoes of approximately $6 billion in spending, including 65% of the Department of Agriculture’s funding, $3 billion in education funding, $1 billion in funding to keep our state prisons operating, and a host of other services and programs, leaves work to be done on this spending plan.

Now, the General Assembly begins work on the 2016-17 state budget, and for the first time in modern Pennsylvania history, we do so without the benefit of a completed current fiscal year’s budget.

The people of Pennsylvania are rightfully concerned about the prospects of another budget stalemate. As our Governor continues to advocate for his priorities – which include additional taxes and increased spending – the members of the General Assembly will likely continue to be advocates for the positions their constituents support.

What has become increasingly clear is that our Commonwealth needs to seriously consider ways to improve our budget process to prevent what occurred in 2015, which included the unnecessary disruptions of state funding to our human services providers who help the most vulnerable in our communities, our schools who have the important task of educating our children, as well as other critical programs and services.

Simply put, we need to find a way to allow the important debates over taxes and spending to occur without harming the people we swore an oath to protect and defend.

This is why I have joined with some of my colleagues in the Senate to propose various budget process reforms. Fortunately, legislators have the power to fix the current broken process, and I am committed to working toward that end.

An idea I have advanced is a biennial, or two-year budget cycle.

Through a constitutional amendment, this proposal would require the enactment of a budget covering a two-year period.  The goal is to increase efficiency and productivity in state government, and encourage long-range planning among state agencies and other entities receiving state appropriations.

In the last ten years, Pennsylvania has only seen an on-time, enacted budget three times.  As we have seen, consistently ignoring the statutory deadline only hurts our state and its people – change is necessary.

A two-year budget cycle would help to facilitate comprehensive planning by incorporating a long-term perspective and allow for increased predictability in the budget process which would reduce the costs of both time and resources.  Such a process would also allow for in-depth review and evaluation of state programs and encourage outcome-focused budgeting.

Our current annual budget process is time-consuming, repetitive, and inefficient.  Repeating this fight every year only contributes to the complexity of the budget process and encourages delay.

Another idea being sponsored in the Senate is the use of a default budget, which would take effect if a spending plan is not approved by July 1.

Under this proposal, funding would continue to flow without interruption at 80% of the spending levels approved from the prior year, leaving room for negotiators to work out their differences without severe program or service disruptions.

A third budget reform concept is moving Pennsylvania towards a zero-based, or performance based budget. This would require all departments and agencies to justify their budget requests beginning with dollar one, for all existing as well as proposed programs for each fiscal year.

Common in the private sector, this type of budgeting would allow us to better keep control of expenses and outcomes, and be another critical check on the growth of state government services and programs.

The goal would be to highlight those programs that are exceptional and to identify those areas of our government that are ineffective. Zero-based budgets help manage existing resources better and help make the case when addition resources are necessary. Like individuals, families and businesses do every day, we should be supporting programs and services that work and reform or eliminate ones that do not.

I am proud to offer my ideas and to work with other reform-minded Senators on their ideas.

It is my hope that, like a breath of fresh spring air, maybe these proposals will promote a renewal in our ability to effectively govern – together.