New report gives Pa. a ‘D-Minus’ for its reliance on one-time budget gimmicks| Monday Morning Coffee

February 24, 2020 7:13 am

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Good Monday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

With another week of budget hearings upon us, now seemed like a good time to zoom out from the micro-details of each agency’s funding request and take a broader look at the way Pennsylvania manages the seeming miracle of getting an approved spending plan over the goal line by … err … June 30ish every year.

And to aid us in that task, we’re turning to the folks at the Volcker Alliance, the New York City-based think-tank founded by former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker, dedicated to “[ensuring] that government is accountable and delivers with excellence.” And this being Pennsylvania and all, that’s a tall order on the best of days.

Volcker, more astute readers will recall, was appointed to the Fed by President Jimmy Carter and stayed on through most of President Ronald Reagan’s two terms. He’s credited for helping to end the inflation that marked the 1970s and 1980s. He died in 2019 at the age of 92.

In that context then, we’re not exactly talking about a fire-breathing socialist, which makes the criticisms to come all the more pointed.

In a new report, the alliance grades the effectiveness and efficiency of the annual budget debate in all 50 states. And if you are a lawmaker or staffer involved in the Keystone State’s annual budget derby, brace yourself, you’re going to feel totally seen in a second.

“Pennsylvania has a history of enacting late budgets riddled with one-time actions to achieve balance,” the report reads, in part. “Even though the state’s 2019 spending plan was passed a week before the start of the new fiscal year, timeliness didn’t yield a higher grade.”

Read on for specifics.

(Source: The Volcker Alliance)

(For your reading purposes, the green check marks indicate that the state is following best practices. The red X? Not so much)

First up, the good news: The state scored a solid B for its budget forecasting, providing what should be concrete proof that, if Independent Fiscal Office boss Matt Knittel didn’t already exist, the state would have to invent him.

Everything else? Well, if there’s a budget summer school, Pennsylvania’s elected officials would go straight from their votes and the signing ceremony to some sweltering classroom where they’d have to write, a la Bart Simpson, “I will not pass budgets riddled with one-time gimmicks,” a thousand times over until it was finally hammered into their recalcitrant heads.

“For fiscal 2017 through 2019, the state averaged a D-minus, the lowest possible mark. It was faulted for balancing budgets by deferring recurring expenditures, shifting revenues and costs, funding recurring expenditures with debt, and using asset sales and upfront revenues to offset continuing spending. The state maintained a C average in reserve funds, primarily because of rules governing deposits into and withdrawals from the rainy day fund,” the report reads in part.

(Source: The Volcker Alliance)

The state gets some extra credit, however, for what’s now a healthy balance in its Rainy Day Fund, thanks to the $317 million deposit that was made last July.

But, “in legacy costs, Pennsylvania posted a D average, the second-lowest mark possible. Though it provided full actuarially determined contributions for public worker pensions, its funding level of 55 percent—about 15 percentage points below the total for all states—reflected past contribution shortfalls,” the report reads. “The state did not provide actuarially determined funding for other post-employment benefits (OPEB), such as retiree health care, during the evaluation period.”

(Source: The Volcker Alliance)

Our Stuff.
Speaking of budget stuff, Associate Editor Cassie Miller gets you smart fast with a patented Capital-Star explainer. Today, everything you ever wanted to know about supplemental appropriations, and how they’re the big budget fight you’re not hearing about.

Capital-Star Correspondent Michala Butler, a sophomore at Temple University, takes you inside efforts to mobilize the 2020 youth vote at the Philadelphia university.

Stephen Caruso has everything you need to know about the nasty GOP primary fight brewing in the Butler County state House seat now held by human lightning rod Daryl Metcalfe.

From our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune, members of Philadelphia City Council have been told the city faces a ‘time like no other’ when it comes to the scourge of gun violence. And a mural honoring Philly civil rights legend Cecil B. Moore is good as new after being defaced by vandals.

En la Estrella-Capital, la junta de libertad condicional dice que está luchando para mantenerse al día con el creciente retraso de llenar a los vacantes. Y ‘Debería darnos verguënza,’ dice el secretario de Comercio e Industria de Pensilvania tocante el salario mínimo estancado.

On our Commentary Page, the Philadelphia Tribune’s John N. Mitchell says activist Paula Peebles’ story of gun-selling cops can’t be dismissed. And two researchers offer a low-cost plan to reduce the deadly toll that air pollution exacts on the country every year.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate and a proponent of Medicare for All

Bernie Sanders has leaped to the front of the 2020 primary pack in Pennsylvania, the Inquirer reports, citing a new University of Wisconsin battleground poll.
The Pa. Turnpike Commission is moving ahead with a new road that will bypass the Allegheny Tunnel in Somerset County, the Post-Gazette reports.
‘Thousands’ of state voters are expected to opt for mail-in ballots this year, which could cause long delays in counting returns, the Morning Call reports.

Here’s your #Harrisburg Instagram of the Day:

A Philadelphia family has sued a state-funded van service after their preschool-aged children were bound with duct tape, WHYY-FM reports.
With suicide rates climbing, states are expanding their crisis reports.
Roll Call looks at a new push on Capitol Hill to expand gun background checks.

What Goes On.
Budget hearings roll on in the House and Senate this Monday morning. As ever, the House Appropriations Committee meets in 140 Main Capitol, while the Senate holds its sessions in Hearing Room 1 of the North Office Building.

Senate Appropriations Committee:
10 a.m.: 
Dept. of Labor & Industry
1 p.m.: State Auditor General
3 p.m.: Dept. of Aging

House Appropriations Committee:
10 a.m.:  Dept. of Environmental Protection
1 p.m.: Dept. of Conservation & Natural Resources
3 p.m.:  Dept. of Health/Dept. of Drug & Alcohol Programs

Also today: House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, addresses this month’s Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon at the Harrisburg Hilton. Thing get rolling at high noon.

What Goes On (Nakedly Political Edition).
Rep. Mary Isaacson, D-Philadelphia
, holds a 5 p.m. reception at McGrath’s Pub on Locust Street in Harrisburg. No word on admission fee. We’ll appreciate any intel from attendees.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out this morning to our old friend Jen Rehill, news director at WLVR-FM in the Lehigh Valley, and to longtime reader and supporter Bill Fulton, of Camp Hill, both of whom celebrate today. Congratulations and enjoy the day.

Heavy Rotation.
Here’s a bit of Mod pop to get your working week rolling. It’s The Lambrettas and ‘Beat Boys in the Jet Age.’

Monday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link.
St. Louis 
logged its fourth straight win, beating Minnesota 4-1 on Sunday night.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press.