Breaking the Bank

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Pennsylvania seems to have a knack for spending money it doesn’t have — or isn’t willing to get.

Just take a look at the commonwealth’s latest budget.

By all accounts it is magnificent in ensuring continued funding of key programs, such as the security grants and corporate tax breaks Jewish day schools right here in Philadelphia depend on to fund scholarships and safety personnel. It even boosts public school spending by $100 million.

The only problem is, while the $32 billion spending plan sailed through the state House and Senate — and is embraced by Gov. Tom Wolf, who praised it as avoiding the “deep, indiscriminate cuts that would have endangered our ability to deliver services to the people of Pennsylvania” — no one in Harrisburg knows how to pay for it all. The legislature hasn’t sent a revenue plan to Wolf, and few seem to be speaking about when the governor, who has until July 10 to sign the budget, will see such a plan.

To his credit, Wolf has touted the idea of borrowing the $2 billion to fund the shortfall, a move he explained is only a temporary measure. Others have suggested expanding gambling in the state and further privatizing its retail liquor business.

No one, however, appears too worried about things, let alone angry.

But when the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the School Reform Commission negotiated a new contract — with hundreds of millions of dollars in unexpected growth — plenty in the state Capitol were up in arms over how public servants would have the temerity to spend money they didn’t have.

“It makes it very difficult to take any request from Philadelphia seriously when they do nothing that appears to help themselves — and then they negotiate a contract which they admit is based on fantasy,” Steve Miskin, spokesman for the Republican majority in the House, said last month.

Sounds a little bit like the coffee pot calling the kettle black, if you ask me.

But you needn’t turn to Harrisburg to see such hypocrisy. Take a look at last week’s announcement of a new deal for the public defenders charged with representing indigent defendants in Philadelphia’s criminal cases. That decision by the First Judicial District broke a nearly two-decade stagnation in the fees paid to court-appointed attorneys — an objectively laudable outcome.

But Benjamin Lerner, a former Court of Common Pleas judge who was appointed by Mayor Jim Kenney to be the city’s deputy managing director for criminal justice, sounded a cautious note.

It “should have been a day of celebration, but it isn’t,” Lerner told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I tried to make it clear that the city does not have the money to fund the fee increase, something the judges’ governing board was aware of when we went over the issue … several months before.”

Are we to think that unchecked spending by some is OK, but not by others? Or are the fiscal hawks among us correct when they advise never to dip into the red? Maybe the answer to both questions is, “Yes.”

The fact is, government is called upon to fund such public goods as education, a social safety net, environmental protection and the criminal justice system, among other things. Take away public defenders — or encourage poor performance by not paying them fair compensation — and you’ll get Henry Fonda’s character in the made-for-TV movie, Gideon’s Trumpet. Fail to grant raises to teachers or funding for crumbling schools, and you’ll continue to fail students, many of whom are already facing long odds at breaking out of systemic poverty.

Cut the environment, cut welfare, cut Medicaid, and you’ll experience a concomitant harm. That’s not to say that trimming a budget is inherently a bad thing. Government must also be efficient and should get rid of programs that do not produce the expected return on the public’s investment.

But when it comes to paying for it all, elected officials must turn to the small toolbox they have to raise money: fees and taxes. Neither is inherently a bad way to go, but those of us who are citizens of the commonwealth must be willing to pay our fair share, either in terms of paying more for access to the judicial system — as one idea out there would pay for public defenders’ raises — or in terms of paying more in taxes.

Maybe that makes me a tax-and-spend liberal. But each of us bears a responsibility to fund a government that guarantees opportunity for all, not a system whereby one’s future prospects are increasingly guaranteed by the ZIP code he or she happens to be born in.

Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at [email protected]

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