HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Numbers nerds were in their glory Tuesday afternoon.
They were joined by state government policy wonks in a conference room at Harrisburg University for a nearly two-hour briefing by the Independent Fiscal Office.
It was an update on the state budget and projections for the next five fiscal years. It was presented by budget mechanics who go under the hood and crunch the numbers. Pennsylvania’s economic engine, they say, is rattling.
“We still have this long-term fundamental imbalance between our revenue growth and our expenditure growth,” IFO director Matthew Knittel said.
Translation: the state is spending more than it’s taking in – by a lot. The office estimates the structural deficit to be $1.7 billion for next fiscal year and $3 billion by 2021-22. That deficit is despite the current fiscal year which added $1 billion in new revenues.
There are systemic and recurring issues creating the shortfall; pensions, aging population, mandated costs.
“Some people think I’m crazy for taking on this role with the budget deficit we’re running right now,” laughed Rep. Stan Saylor (R-York).
Saylor, on Tuesday, was elected House Appropriations chairman by fellow members. It’s a huge honor and a daunting task. It will be his job to shepherd the budget through the process. Despite the red ink, Saylor knows his caucus will see red at any mention of a sales or income tax hike. Those are off the table, he says.
“There’s a lack of revenue coming in right now, but it’s because we continue to overspend in Pennsylvania. Harrisburg has to live within its means,” he said.
But Democrats and others contend the state’s been paying its bills with gimmicks and one-time fixes for far too long.
“We’ve been cutting taxes for years,” said Marc Steir with the left-leaning Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. “We cut corporate taxes. We’ve cut other taxes. Now, we don’t have enough money to pay for the government Pennsylvanians seem to want.”
Democratic Appropriations chairman Joe Markosek (D-Allegheny) agrees. He said the state is out of sofa cushions to look under and believes new revenues are necessary to balance the budget.
Caution: another contentious budget year is likely ahead.