I’ve written and spoken about Pennsylvania’s budget many times. We know the issues; there is never enough money regardless of how much revenue is generated and Pennsylvania’s spending perpetually outpaces the economy of our state. What does that mean? It means the state is spending at a level that exceeds our taxpayer’s ability to pay. While spending advocates try to justify to lawmakers why a 5%, 6% or 7% increase is needed for a specific program, they never acknowledge the fact that the average Pennsylvanian’s spending capacity only increased by approximately 2.3% during that same time. The question remains, how do we force elected officials to control spending and be responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars?
There’s a great first step that Pennsylvania could take, and it’s called the “Taxpayer Protection Act.” This legislation would amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to limit the growth of future spending in relation to the combined rate of inflation and population growth over a three-year period. The Taxpayer Protection Act would allow the General Assembly to exceed this limit in a given year with a two-thirds supermajority vote of both houses, for certain extraordinary circumstances. The legislation, House Bill110
, which I co-sponsored, was sponsored by Rep. Ryan Warner, last session and passed out of the House. Unfortunately, House Bill 110 died in the Senate Appropriations Committee, failing to receive any action. Sen. Camera Bartolotta sponsored a similar bill, Senate Bill 173
, last session as well, but the Senate never allowed the bill to come to the floor for a vote.
Passing House Bill110 out of the House sent a message that representatives were willing to budget within parameters aligned to the economy. Unfortunately, we discovered financial mechanisms being utilized that allowed for larger budget growth. It’s called “supplemental spending”, which is nothing more than a diplomatic term for OVER-SPENDING. The governor spends more than the amount enacted in the budget bill, the over-spend is usually agreed to, the prior year’s budget is “supplemented” altering the total spend number and the spending growth is determined from the newly altered spend number. For example, if a budget of $32 billion is enacted, the governor actually spends $32.5 billion in that fiscal year and the proposed budget for the new fiscal year is $33.5 billion; it will be reported that spending, from one fiscal year to the next, only increased by $500 million instead of the true $1 billion increase, or a 1.5% increase instead of the actual 3% increase.
Both legislators have again introduced variations of the bills this session, but the House bill has been refined to be more specific about the how budget growth is to be measured, given the budgeting mechanisms enlisted in the past. House Bill 1316
, sponsored by Rep. Warner, passed out of the House State Government Committee this past June and is still waiting for a full House vote. Senate Bill 116
, Sen. Bartolotta’s bill, once again made it out of the Senate Finance Committee but has again been referred to the Senate Appropriations Committee with no action since June.
Pennsylvania is in the minority with only 17 other states, that operate with no tax or expenditure limitations in place according to the Tax Policy Center. It’s not surprising that the majority of states have such measures in place as the policy has encompassed bi-partisan support in each state that has implemented limitation measures. So, why can’t we get this passed in Pennsylvania? Because this is a taxpayer issue – not a special interest issue. Voters aren’t putting enough pressure on legislators to get House Bill 1316 or Senate Bill 116 passed. If voters knew that their family could have kept almost $1,000 more a year for the past 15 years if a Taxpayer Protection Act were enacted they might be a little more vocal.
Both bills propose amending our state Constitution to make the change permanent, so the legislation would require passage by the General Assembly in two consecutive legislative sessions before being placed on the ballot and receiving approval by voters. Understanding this is a process, Pennsylvanians must demand action on this fundamental fiscal stewardship immediately. The Senate only has seven session days, and the House only has 10 session days remaining in 2019. When legislators come back in January budget hearings will be in progress and none of the members will be on record making a commitment to keep state spending in line with the growth of Pennsylvania’s economy. While an initial vote is only the first step, it draws a line in the sand and gives voters an opportunity to hold those legislators supporting the Taxpayer Protection Act accountable. Legislators talk all the time about government reform, fiscal restraint and accountability; here’s their opportunity to “walk the talk.” I hope voters will not only push the vote but, will pay attention and hold their elected officials accountable.
Representative Dawn Keefer
92nd Legislative District
Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Media Contact: Greg Gross