The budget battle has begun. Governor Ed Rendell has continued his typical tax, spend and borrow approach, while state Senate Republicans have decided the time has come for state government to live within its means. Given the nature of the legislative process it is a certainty that the final 2009-2010 budget will look nothing like either proposal. But it will end up bearing a closer resemblance to one fiscal philosophy or the other, so the question is which will prevail?
A better question might be: which approach will the political culture of the state capital allow to dominate? State government in Pennsylvania is an insular world. Much like the federal capital city the culture of the governing class is very different from the culture of the governed. When they are in Harrisburg senators and state representatives are treated like kings and queens. They have staff to look after their every need, and lobbyists to fulfill their every want.
It takes strong character not to succumb to the perks of power. To be sure there are many who do not. But, there are those who quickly get taken with their station in life and value keeping their position more than representing the "folks back home." At no time is the tug between pleasing the lobbyists and representing the people greater than during budget time. And at this crucial moment, the lobbyists and Harrisburg insiders have the upper hand.
A good example is what happened last week when Senate Republicans moved their austere, responsible budget through committee and to the floor for a vote. They were immediately pummeled with complaints, criticism, and threats. A whole lot of sacred cows got slaughtered to balance the senate's budget. And the owners of those cows protested — loudly.
Here lies the crux of the problem. For virtually every line item in the state budget there is an interest group, usually with well paid Harrisburg lobbyists, to protect, defend, and expand their share of the public treasury. If you don't give them what they want, then they gin up their e-mail lists and phone trees and barrage senators and representatives with complaints. Fail to meet a lot of budget expectations at the same time and the hue and cry becomes an unbearable din, which is exactly what happened.
But what about we the people, the taxpayers who have to pay for it all? We, of course, have no lobbyists telling us to send out e-mails. So there was no organized taxpayer response to the senate budget. There was no countervailing flood of taxpayer gratitude offering a pat on the back and reinforcement for a job well done.
This is the culture of Harrisburg at work. Senators and representatives hear constantly from the spending interests (many of whom also operate political action committees that give hefty campaign contributions), and rarely hear a peep from the folks back home. Taxpayers are focused on working and earning the money to pay their taxes, and are less attuned to the decision points of state government.
To make matters worse, some of the interest groups that represent traditional Republican constituencies have joined in the criticism. I spoke with one such lobbyist who complained of an $8 million cut and asked me what message that sends to a group of people who typically vote Republican. I responded it says the Senate is being fiscally responsible — something the folks you lobby for claim they want. Apparently it is only fiscally responsible when the other guy's program gets cut.
That is because spending interests are spending interests. The sad fact of the matter is few in Harrisburg represent the taxpayers. That is why our elected officials need to hear from you. Because what is going to happen next is the pressure will become immense on Senate Republicans and those of both parties in the House who want to hold the line on taxes and spending. The governor will beat them up, their spendthrift colleagues will beat them up, the spending interests will beat them up, and even their own staffs will beat them up.
It is going to be a long, hot and contentious summer in Harrisburg. This year's state budget is running $3 billion in the red, and the battle lines are drawn on the new spending plan. Will the culture of the capital prevail, or will fiscal responsibility be restored to state government? The result will depend on you making your voice heard.
(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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