It was a classic example of how bureaucrats and politicians manipulate public opinion to advance their spending agendas. In the days after the Republican-controlled state senate passed a no-tax hike budget, the Rendell Administration began a PR campaign designed to highlight what residents of Penn's woods would lose if that budget is enacted.
Next to mom and apple pie, state parks are considered sacrosanct. So, since the senate cut the budget of the state bureaucracy that administers the parks, Rendell immediately announced that "at least 35 of the 120 state parks" would close. On cue, many media outlets around the state responded with articles and broadcasts bemoaning the possible loss of recreational facilities.
The senate budget would in fact cut $19 million from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). But, it is a behemoth agency with an annual budget of $120,390,000. The department's budget remains that high even after it was it was split in two during the Ridge Administration (the other half being the Department of Environmental Protection.) In a department with a $120,390,000 budget there are clearly a number of expenses that can be cut, aside from state parks.
This is the oldest bureaucratic trick in the book. When facing a budget cut the agency trims or eliminates the services that have the biggest impact on people. Logic would suggest the opposite course: cut back in areas that impact people the least. But this is government so efficient management of the agency is not the goal. Rather, the goal is to keep grabbing an ever-growing share of the public pie. Thus, you close or reduce those services that people use the most in order to generate a public outcry against the budget cuts.
And it worked. By threatening to close state parks front page articles appeared across the commonwealth lamenting the possible closure or some state parks, some denouncing the senate budget cuts as "draconian." Lacking in much of the coverage, however, was a closer examination of both the DCNR and DEP budgets for ways the agencies could cut spending while keeping more parks open.
Another way to look at the situation is to question whether we actually need 120 state parks. We only have 67 counties, so that is nearly two parks per county. Add to that county parks and municipal parks and we seem to have our share of parkland. I am not suggesting the parks be plowed under for shopping centers, but we must question whether we need, and can afford, that many active parks or whether it would be appropriate for some to be converted to passive parks to trim operating costs.
These are the sorts of questions state lawmakers ought to be considering at budget time. Just because something has "always been done" is not a reason to continue doing it. In every agency the state is spending money on programs and projects we either do not need or cannot afford during tough times.
But in government there is no such thing as tough times. Especially during this administration spending is a way of life, and taxes have been hiked or money borrowed to pay the bills. But this year raising taxes is not an option. Working families are struggling with record unemployment and under-employment. The state's business climate, bad even in good times, is floundering.
Senate Republicans are actually looking at the big picture. The GOP budget is designed to trim spending to the levels we can actually afford. There will be short-term pain, but as the economic begins to grow some of the cuts can be restored. We could resume growing the budget at the rate of inflation, thus continuing to spend within our means.
These are the games that are played. Cut where it hurts the most, get the media to shed crocodile tears over the cuts, pressure the politicians to raise taxes, the politicians give in, higher taxes then cost the state more jobs, this causes more people and businesses to leave, tax revenues then go down, this creates another deficit, budget cuts are proposed — and the cycle begins anew.
The last time this happened, in 1991, state government enacted the biggest tax hike in the history of the commonwealth creating an adverse economic climate that persists to this day. This time we must break the cycle. It is time to hold the line on taxes and spending to restore fiscal responsibility to state government.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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