Their View | State needs real budget

June 28, 2014 

The following editorial appeared in Friday’s Philadelphia Inquirer.

The Pennsylvania House’s proposed $29.1 billion budget is so out of step with the state’s actual needs that the document’s only possible use is to serve as scratch paper for notes during the Senate debate.

The House budget largely addresses the state’s estimated $1.5 billion funding gap by again shortchanging schools. It provides an additional $70 million, a 1.3 percent increase, for basic education. But that doesn’t come close to making up for past cuts that have forced schools to lay off teachers.

The spending plan includes no new taxes even though Pennsylvania is the only state without a tax on natural gas drilling. And it makes no mention of a proposed Philadelphia-only cigarette tax, which city schools need to stay alive.

Perhaps the only good thing in the House budget is the $380 million it anticipates from the long-overdue sale of the state’s liquor stores. But few in the capital believe liquor privatization is a realistic expectation. With a nonstarter budget like this, it’s up to the state Senate and the governor’s office to do the real thinking.

State Sen. Vincent Hughes, of Philadelphia, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, is suggesting that one good idea be appropriated from New Hampshire, which, like Pennsylvania, hopes to craft an alternative to Obamacare. While it works on its own plan, the Granite State is expanding Medicaid and accepting the accompanying federal funds.

Corbett similarly wants a Pennsylvania-specific alternative to the Affordable Care Act, but he has yet to devise one the federal government would accept. Doesn’t it make sense, while Corbett tries to get his act together, to try New Hampshire’s approach and expand Medicaid in the interim? Hughes says that would provide about $500 million in federal funds, allowing Pennsylvania to use that much cash to close a third of the state’s budget gap.

Expanding Medicaid would immediately help thousands of uninsured Pennsylvanians. Corbett’s continuing to work on a viable alternative to the ACA would also help him and fellow Republicans deal with the tea party folks who insist that Obamacare be treated like the plague.

By refusing to expand Medicaid, lawmakers are essentially forcing Pennsylvanians who pay federal taxes to subsidize Medicaid expansions in New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Maryland and 22 other states that are taking advantage of the program.

One item all parties seem to agree on is that they should work through the weekend if necessary to finish the budget by the mandated July 1 deadline. Lawmakers even seem open to going past the deadline. That makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is passing a budget on time that doesn’t adequately address the state’s most pressing needs — especially in health and education.

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