Irresponsible: Corbett’s budget plan is risky for Pennsylvania

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Gov. Tom Corbett’s $29.4 billion budget for 2014-15 would increase state spending by 3 percent and send more dollars toward education, but it relies on too many questionable maneuvers in order to be balanced.

Mr. Corbett, who this year will ask voters to give him a second term in office, has been vilified over his education funding in the past. This time, he would offer $241 million more for school districts, money that would have to be used primarily for curriculum development and training for educators, and $10 million so 1,670 more children can attend pre-kindergarten programs. He also proposed the first increase for special education in six years, a $20 million hike in a $1 billion line item.

Even with these improvements, though, the education budget is far from generous. It keeps allocations for basic education — the backbone of school district spending and the first line of defense against local property tax increases — level for another year, and it does the same thing for the state’s public universities.

That conservative approach makes it all the more odd for Mr. Corbett to propose creation of a $25 million scholarship program that would offer merit awards to middle-class families that can’t qualify for other aid programs. This is nothing but pandering to a political audience.

For a governor who preaches the gospel of long-term fiscal responsibility, Mr. Corbett uses a long list of one-time revenue sources in this budget, and he kicks the can down the road to get around the state’s ever-increasing pension costs.

A year ago, Mr. Corbett proposed major revisions in pension plans for state and school district employees — which the Post-Gazette supported — but they went nowhere with lawmakers. This year, he has scaled back his attempt and seeks a change that would affect only new hires. That clearly won’t do the job, so Mr. Corbett wants to lower the sums that the state and school districts must pay this year — a move that will raise costs even higher in future years. He also would take $225 million from reserves in the tobacco settlement fund and spend it on pensions, even though the fund primarily pays for health initiatives.

Another one-shot deal, which the governor said would bring in $150 million, would cut the time frame, from five years to three, that the state allows people to collect unclaimed property before the government seizes it. Also troubling is his proposal to raise $75 million by ending the ban on gas drilling beneath 800,000 acres of sensitive state forests and park land. With the state already leasing 700,000 acres in its forests and parks for drilling, former Gov. Ed Rendell’s 2010 moratorium on such activity in state lands with old growth forests, fragile ecosystems and habitats for rare and endangered species should remain.

A decade ago, the city of Pittsburgh found itself teetering on the brink of bankruptcy because it had used shaky, one-time measures and fiddled with pensions to balance its budgets. Tom Corbett, who had a front-row seat to that as an Allegheny County resident, should not be pushing the state to emulate Pittsburgh’s irresponsible tactics.

Another time-honored tradition in state budgeting, vilified by Republicans when Mr. Rendell did it, is inflating state revenue projections in order to reach a number that balances the books. Mr. Corbett may be using the same rose-colored glasses in projecting a $216 million year-end balance by June 30, given that revenue collections so far are running $41 million below estimates.

One final disappointment: Mr. Corbett made only passing reference to the need to privatize the state’s biggest dinosaur, the government monopoly on the sale of wine and spirits — action he promised when he ran for governor four years ago. We hope his failure to talk about the revenue that could be collected through the sale of private licenses does not suggest a weakening of resolve on this no-brainer.

All in all, there is much to worry about in the governor’s proposed budget.

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