During his time in the White House Ronald Reagan kept a small sign on his desk. It read simply: "It can be done." Pennsylvanians are about to elect a new governor. He will be required to deal with a wide range of intractable problems; including a massive budget deficit, widespread corruption and unmet basic services. The optimism expressed by President Reagan that governing by core conservative principles can and will lead us to prosperity is an outlook our new governor should adopt as he takes office.
The set of circumstances currently confronting we the people of Penn's Woods is not without precedent. Back in 1978 the commonwealth faced a similar set of problems. Corruption was rampant in the administration of then Governor Milton Shapp. State government was bloated, inefficient and ineffective. Our highways were in disrepair, welfare rolls were bursting at the seams, and political favoritism dictated who got state contracts.
Into office came Pennsylvania's 41st governor, Richard Thornburgh. A former U.S. Attorney, Thornburgh tolerated not even a hint of corruption. The indictment-of-the-day that characterized the Shapp era ended. Thornburgh brought in a new set of managers that eliminated the jobs of thousands of unnecessary employees, professionalized the management of state agencies, and brought the state budget under control. Dick Thornburgh left office as governor with a surplus in the state treasury. Governor Ed Rendell, by contrast, will bequeath a multi-billion structural deficit to his successor.
Speaking recently at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference, Governor Thornburgh reminded us that conservative governing principles are more than just a bunch of unproven theories: they have worked in practice — and he did it. Conservatives, and Republican candidates who espouse conservative beliefs, should not be dissuaded by the naysayers in their own party and the liberal Democrats who claim the principles of fiscal, bring government back to the basics conservatism will not work.
It can be done. It has been done. It can be done again.
The flip side of the coin is that the activist, bordering on socialist, style of state government practiced by the Rendell & company has not, cannot, and will not work. Rendell has literally spent Pennsylvania into bankruptcy. He has hood winked some Republican legislators and occasionally the electorate at large into voting for nice sounding, but fiscally irresponsible, borrowing schemes that have bloated our state's debt. Welfare rolls are swollen, contracts are being doled out to political cronies, and our highways and bridges have fallen into an advanced state of disrepair.
And the predictable fiscal disaster has followed. Pennsylvania suffers from a $3 billion structural budget deficit papered over last year with federal stimulus money and the use of one time revenue sources. The courts have declared unconstitutional a transfer of $800 million in MCare funds used to balance this year's budget, aggravating the problem. Revenue collections for the current fiscal year will end up nearly $1 billion under projections.
Still, Rendell continues to propose more spending. This despite the fact the General Assembly — most of whose members are up for re-election this year — has made it abundantly clear it will not raise taxes. This fiscal mess will likely get papered over again this summer, leaving a major headache to the next governor who will also have to deal with a looming pension crisis and massive underfunding of the state's unemployment compensation fund.
It is clear the time has come for Pennsylvania to change course. The profligate spending of Ed Rendell has brought into clear focus the failure of his big spending, big government agenda. This is in stark contrast to the fiscal discipline and conservative governing approach that brought the commonwealth an era of prosperity during the Thornburgh years.
As the campaign for governor unfolds conservatives need to press the case for a return to fiscally conservative governing principles and use them to undertake a widespread structural change in the way state government does business. The course we are on is unsustainable, and there is only one route out, and that requires taking a sharp right turn.
It can be done.
(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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