Why Do It In The Dark?

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June 4, 2012

(June 2012)

I think the Starland Vocal Band gives sound advice in the classic, "Afternoon Delight:"

My motto's always been "When it's right, it's right."
Why wait until the middle of a cold dark night?
When everything's a little clearer in the light of day?
And you know the night is always gonna be there anyway?

While everything is definitely a little clearer in the light of day, government officials are doing their darndest this budget season to make sure that we are moving ahead and adopting spending plans without full information, without clarity, and without sunshine.  Maybe they are afraid that if we turned on the lights, we wouldn’t be so happy about what we see.  

In Harrisburg, Republican leaders in the General Assembly are working feverishly to enact Governor Corbett’s slash-and-burn budget by June 13 despite the fact that the budget deadline is not until July 1.  (In fact, that "deadline" has been routinely ignored in the state capital in recent years and budgets have been passed well after July 1.)

Governor Corbett’s proposed $27 billion budget contains significant spending reductions for education as well as programs for people who are poor, elderly, and disabled.  One might think that legislators would be in no rush to enact such a painful budget -- especially when economic indicators suggest that improved state revenue projections could eliminate the need for deep cuts. 

Important quarterly tax-revenue reports due out later in June could show that state tax revenues are higher than anticipated when the Governor outlined his budget proposals.  Most significant, the Commonwealth’s Independent Fiscal Office’s June 15 report should provide a non-partisan view of Pennsylvania’s fiscal state to give legislators the information they need to adopt a budget with as much foresight as possible.

But, with legislators and the public in the dark, we might be left with unnecessary, but very painful cuts to programs that too many vulnerable Pennsylvanians depend on.  So why not wait a few days to see what light the revenue reports shine on the budget? 

Why do it in the dark?  

In Philadelphia, Mayor Nutter insists that the best way to enact the Actual Value Initiative -- the much-needed effort to make real estate taxation fair and accurate -- is to adopt tax rates and tax policies BEFORE City Council and the public can see how the new system would change the tax burdens of Philadelphia property owners.  One might think that the Mayor would take his own advice (as well as the advice of the Tax Reform Commission and so many others who have opined on this issue) and only move ahead once the City had the "actual" numbers for the Actual Value Initiative so we all could understand what these important changes could mean.  Armed with that understanding, we could best craft policies to protect vulnerable homeowners from unreasonable increases in their tax bills.

More and more, as we play with hypothetical scenarios and estimate what the Mayor’s plans could mean for homeowners, we see that unintended consequences will, indeed, be the rule.  Far too many row-house Philadelphians will see their tax bills go up by hundreds of percent if City Council adopts the Mayor’s "cart-before-the-horse" approach to enacting these changes.

The Mayor has artfully backed City Council into a dark corner, running out the clock toward the deadline to enact a budget (which, for the City, is a very firm deadline that cannot be ignored).  But, had City Hall officials been working as hard on shedding light on these issues as they have been on keeping those shades drawn, we would be making much smarter policy.  

Why do it in the dark?

The only thing I can think of that thrives in such an environment is a mushroom.  If one wants to grow a good mushroom, keep it in the dark and dump lots of manure on it.  But we are not mushrooms.  We thrive in the light and don’t take well to having manure heaped on us.  

I’m not so sure that budgeting is a subject that inspires sky rockets in flight for many, but I like to do it with my eyes wide open in the light of day.  Governor Corbett and Mayor Nutter are doing it in the dark, which may be a good way to make a mushroom, but a lousy way to make…a budget.

 

 

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