Would zero-based budgeting be good for Pa.?

A quick dive into the dark arts of budgets

  • Joseph Darius Jaafari
Contexters! I have some really good news for you: It’s the Chinese New Year on Saturday! If you need me, I’ll be in Pittsburgh devouring dim sum in solidarity. I’ll also be visiting the remains of the city’s Chinatown, which was all but abandoned after the ‘50s. Having lived in Chinatown for a minute in Los Angeles and being a stone’s throw away from New York’s, it’s fascinating to see the different variations as they are almost always a lesson in immigrant history. If you’re as big a fan as I am and want unsolicited recommendations, here are my top five (out of those I’ve been to): New York City, Johannesburg (there are two, actually), San Francisco, London and Montreal. If you have favorites of your own — especially here in Pa. — let us know in our Listening Post. Today, we’re again answering a question sent by a reader. — Joseph Darius Jaafari, staff writer

Matt Rourke / The Associated Press

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, center, shakes hands with House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, left, as Lt. Gov. John Fetterman looks on after Wolf delivered his budget address for the 2019-20 fiscal year to a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate in Harrisburg, Pa., on Feb. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Jeffrey from Pen Argyl, Pa., sent us a question asking if the legislature uses zero-based budgeting, and how do legislators decide on how much money a department receives? He also asked for a story that wasn’t “fluff.” So, instead, we’ll give him some wonk.

But I’m not the best situated to answer that question. So, I turned to WITF Capitol Bureau Chief Katie Meyer, whom I have incredible respect and admiration for. Here’s what she had to say:

Joseph: Let’s answer Jeff’s question. Why don’t we do zero-based budgeting in Pa.?

Katie: This is a concept that goes back a few decades, and over the years a bunch of states have incorporated it into their budgeting processes in various forms and at different times. Basically, what it means is that you start at zero every year; there’s no assumption that any money is going to be spent. All of the agencies that want funding would have to basically prove that they deserve it and prove what they need to use it for. Conservatives love that.

J: Why?

K: Because the idea is that growth in spending would be less of a given. It stands to reason with inflation that costs are going to go up year over year. But many conservatives sort of chafe at the idea that the state budget needs to keep expanding. And so they are always looking for ways to sort of bake it into state law, or state practice, that there needs to be less expansion of state agencies and more just doing what we can.

J: The legislature is run by Republicans who claim to be fiscal hawks. So, why hasn’t zero-based budgeting been rolled out here?

K: Well, first off, not all Republicans are really gung-ho about cutting programs viciously. And look at historical context. You look at governors who have been very, very eager to spend less money on state programs like, for instance, Tom Corbett, who was Governor Wolf’s predecessor. He tried his darndest in the wake of the recession not to raise any taxes and to keep cutting state programs. And it was very unpopular. He was voted out.

J: What are the consistent issues with the budget that you see from the lawmakers’ side?

K: We don’t bring in enough revenue on a consistent basis to easily cover our expenses. For example, we haven’t raised our sales and income taxes, and meanwhile, lawmakers haven’t cut programs aggressively enough to make up the deficits that keep cropping up.

J: That doesn’t sound like it would be popular. 

K: Well, I think people don’t realize how many different pots of money that we’re scrambling around to try to make all the numbers add up. One of the fun ways Pennsylvania funds transportation is that we’ve got a fund that’s mostly for roads and bridges, called the Motor License fund. And a lot of that money, which is ostensibly for large infrastructure projects, actually goes to state police because a while ago they were like, “This is a pot of money we could use to fund the police because we don’t have money for that.” So they said, “Police use the roads. So we’ll just fund them from that.” And that’s been a big drain on the transportation budget for a while.

J: So, what happens?

K: So, in the past, they had to pass the funding and the spending bills together. And if they didn’t do that, there was a government shutdown.

J: Got it. Essentially, there needed to be two items passed: one bill for how much money to spend on each department, and one that showed where that money was going to come from. If those didn’t pass at the same time, it would affect how a department does its job, and some government workers would have to temporarily work without pay. Is that different now?  

K: That changed about a decade ago. The state Supreme Court ruled state workers can’t have payless paydays, so lawmakers had to come up with a new strategy for budget impasses. So groups say now, “Oh, we’re gonna spend this amount this year on schools.” And that’s great. But then there’s the component of where that money is coming from. And they’re like, “Aha, we’ll figure that out later.”

J: So they treat their budget how I treat paying off my student loans. Essentially, budgeting for a $40,000 income when really I’m making $30,000. 

K: Exactly. And that you’re a person who’s very optimistic in that you’re going to be able to find that extra $10,000 in the couch cushions. And there are a lot of couch cushions in the legislature.

Hope that was a good breakdown for you, Jeff. For further reading on the topic, check out this report from the National Conference of State Legislatures, or this explainer from The Conversation. Also, GOP state Reps. Frank Ryan (Lebanon) and Seth Grove (York) recently introduced a zero-based budget bill, and Scott Wagner made zero-based budgeting a plank in his campaign to unseat Gov. Wolf in 2018. And see page 4 of this report by the accounting firm Deloitte for a breakdown of the disadvantages of zero-base budgeting for governments.

If any of you others have questions on a law, policy or cultural nuance in the state, submit it through our Listening Post. – Joseph Darius Jaafari

Best of the rest

Matt Rourke / Associated Press

Rep. Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, takes the oath for Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa..(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

  • Another leader set to leave? More speculation is growing about the future plans of Mike Turzai, the Republican Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. As Katie Meyer notes, gossip about Turzai’s possible plans to resign is the talk of the capitol. Marc Levy with the Associated Press reported yesterday that three people who spoke with Turzai in recent days said the speaker is expected to announce he’s leaving the legislature for a job in the private sector. He scheduled a press conference in Pittsburgh this morning at 11 a.m.

  • Parental rights for convicted rapists: The state House Judiciary Committee this week passed a proposal to make it easier for a woman to terminate the parental rights of her child’s father if the pregnancy resulted from a rape. Current law suggests that a woman impregnated by a rapist needs to line up a second adoptive parent before a judge can revoke the rapist’s parental rights. It’s a loophole in a 30-year-old law that allows rape victims to stake sole claim to their child, but the provision has made it difficult for single women to petition for parental custody. Katie Meyer also has the story. 

  • Poison in the well: For Rolling Stone magazine, Justin Nobel does a deep dive into how workers transporting “brine” – a naturally occurring waste byproduct that’s pumped into the ground for natural gas drilling – are exposed to levels of radiation thousands of times higher than what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission advises. All the while, Nobel writes, industry reps told workers that the radiation level was the same as a “banana or a granite countertop.”

  • Gritty’s getting investigated: In what appears to be the most on-brand thing a hockey mascot can do, the Flyers’ Gritty allegedly hit a kid in the back at a recent game. During a photo opportunity with the mascot, Gritty “took a running start” and punched 13-year-old Brandon Greenwell in the back, according to emails between the police and Greenwell’s father that were obtained by The Philadelphia Inquirer. Police are investigating the allegations.

  • Shifting cyber schools: Thirty-seven thousand students risk being taken out of privately run and publicly funded cyber charter schools and placed into public virtual schools, according to Avi Wolfman-Arent with Keystone Crossroads. A bill debated at a House Education Committee on Tuesday proposes to shut down all charter schools that exist online and instead have public schools take up an online presence in their stead. One legislator called the proposal “overkill.”

  • What passes for bipartisanship in 2020: Pennsylvania’s junior senator, Pat Toomey (R), has plenty of snacks in his desk to feed his hungry colleagues, Republicans and Democrats alike, during the marathon impeachment trial. The Morning Call‘s Laura Olson has a good story.

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