By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania House members, after three weeks of hearing about spending plans, finally had the chance to grill Budget Secretary Charles Zogby.
It all came down to the big-ticket policy changes proposed by the administration as part of Gov. Tom Corbett’s $28.4 billion budget, which must be passed by June 30.
Funding that plan is contingent on the passage of changes to the state’s pension system, altering the amount employees and the state contribute toward two funds carrying $41 billion in liabilities. Other asterisks proceed liquor privatization and transportation infrastructure investments, which Corbett also proposed.
Democrats may be in the minority, but they’re not going along quietly. Several House Democrats, including state Rep. Steve Santarserio of Bucks County, said Thursday they aren’t sold on Corbett’s vision for next year.
“I don’t think it is responsible budgeting to present a budget that’s predicated on an outcome that may well not come to pass,” Santarserio said.
On pensions, Santarserio said there is substantial concern over whether the proposed changes would legally hold up in court, potentially leaving millions of dollars in savings unaccounted for. He cited court decisions from the early 1980s that could suggest plans to change benefits for current employees might not be permissible.
Zogby said if and when pension changes are litigated, the administration believes the law is on their side.
“Everybody seems to sort of go to the automatic that everything that he’s proposing is somehow unconstitutional,” Zogby said, “and I would say not all reforms are created equal.”
Corbett’s proposals, Zogby said, would equal progress.
But one doesn’t need to look too far into the past to see that the administration’s aspirations don’t always pan out.
State Rep. Michelle Brownlee, D-Philadelphia, pointed to the lottery privatization agreement with Camelot Global Services, found unconstitutional by Attorney General Kathleen Kane in February. The contract would have added $50 million to senior citizen programs next year, and at least $3.5 billion in a 20-year span.
Corbett’s liquor privatization proposal promises $1 billion for public education funding over the next four years by selling off state stores and creating a new retail licensing system. Lawmakers will have to approve that plan, unlike the lottery plan, but Brownlee still questioned what it would mean for public education if it doesn’t happen.
“If you do not have a Plan B I would suggest you think about a Plan B and possibly a Plan C,” she said. “Because if these things don’t happen, how do you get to the level of funding you want to properly fund these?”
To this point, Zogby said the proposed changes are ambitious but still part of the process.
“I don’t think it’s uncommon for governors to have proposals in their budget that are predicated on actions by the General Assembly implementing a charge or reform that makes the funding possible,” Zogby said. “I don’t think we’re breaking new ground in that respect.”
Contact Melissa Daniels at [email protected]