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Reserving the Right to Object
May 23, 2016 - By Lt. Governor Mike Stack and State Senator Ryan Aument

Biennial budgeting is bipartisan solution to annual impasses

To the frustration of many Pennsylvanians, the 2015-16 state budget took almost nine months to complete.

While this was the longest budget impasse in our commonwealth's history, it certainly was not the first time Pennsylvania struggled to enact a timely annual spending plan.

In fact, over the past 2 1/2 decades, four other state government budget impasses have lasted longer than 10 days: in 2009, 2007, 2003 and 1991. And over the last 10 years, Pennsylvania has seen only three budgets enacted on time.

What do all these late budgets have in common?

For one thing, they all occurred in years when state government was split between a governor of one political party and at least one chamber of the General Assembly controlled by the other party. For another, they all occurred in years that did not involve elections for either the Legislature or governor.

Clearly, there is a pattern that, if left unaddressed, will likely continue to be repeated.

Budget impasses have a real and lasting impact on people, with those who provide or receive social services being harmed the most. School districts are also put in a terrible position, with some having to borrow money while their funding remains bottled up in the state Treasury.

In our opinion, the biggest loss that occurs with a budget impasse is loss of the trust citizens have in their state government and in the ability of their leaders in Harrisburg to amicably resolve differences.

As state leaders, it is our responsibility to offer solutions to problems. While there may be very real disagreements about the size, scope and cost of state government services and programs, we should all agree that the current budget process is broken.

Simply put, we can - and should - do better.

Several ideas have been proposed to prevent budget gridlock, including stopping payments to lawmakers until a budget passes, setting a firm schedule to begin negotiations earlier and enacting a default budget in the event of a delay.

Some of these ideas may work; others may not be very effective.

One thing that we know for sure is that the current annual budget process is time-consuming, repetitive and inefficient. Repeating this fight every year only contributes to the complexity of the budget process and encourages delay.

This is why we recently joined with other Republican and Democratic colleagues to promote our idea to help fix this problem: biennial budgets that coincide with the two-year legislative sessions.

The use of a two-year budget process is hardly a radical or even new idea. Twenty-six states already have such a cycle. Until 1959, Pennsylvania had one as well.

The reasons that this approach to budgeting is used are simple and make sense.

A two-year budget provides greater stability, consistency and predictability to state agencies and departments, local governments, school districts, nonprofits and other entities that rely on public funds. All can better plan their spending with the removal of annual budget uncertainty and guesswork.

This would result in more comprehensive planning with a longer-term perspective. Along with reducing both time and resource costs, it also allows for in-depth review and evaluation of programs, thus encouraging outcome-focused budgeting.

Another benefit would be that the General Assembly and governor would have more time to exercise necessary oversight of the executive departments, making sure that monies spent are being put to good use.

Instead of simply arguing about how much money the state should be spending on an annual basis, it would be beneficial to agree to a two-year spending figure and then manage the implementation of that spending so state leaders can finally fix the underlying problems that prevent us from achieving our common goals.

Finally, another significant benefit of a two-year budget would be the reduction of political grandstanding that follows the annual spending plan each year. Our commonwealth has many pressing issues, not just the budget. This would allow lawmakers and the governor more opportunity to tackle other challenges.

We recognize there are those who benefit from the annual budget fight each year and therefore would oppose this idea. To them, we say this: The system is broken, and our constituents will have a much higher regard for us in the long term if we work to fix it.

As state leaders, we are here to solve problems, not create them. It is our duty to work together to make things better, not worse.

Budget reform through a biennial budget is a good opportunity for us to do just that, to the benefit of all Pennsylvanians.

Mike Stack, a Democrat, is Pennsylvania's lieutenant governor. Ryan Aument, a Lancaster County Republican, represents the 36th District in the Pennsylvania Senate.

Editor's Note: This first appeared in the May 15 edition of LNP.

The idea of a biennial is one that The Susquehanna Valley Center has suggested as a way to improve Pennsylvania's budget process since 2001. Also, Governor Corbett also proposed this idea during his initial campaign for Governor.

The views expressed here are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy.
Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation.

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