by Lowman S. Henry | September 30, 2003

Return to two-year state budgets may come back in style

Every once in a while an old idea becomes new again. It seems our never-ending quest for things new and original occasionally gives way to a desire for something old and familiar. In clothing for example, the hottest trend is to pay excessive amounts of money for retro sports jerseys. Sales of Chuck Taylor canvas all-star sneakers have skyrocketed to the point Nike went out and bought the company. The old has become new again.

So it is with state government that the idea of returning to the old two-year budget cycle is experiencing somewhat of a renaissance. The concept was abandoned in the late 1950s in favor of the current one-year fiscal cycle to allow the commonwealth to more quickly adapt to changing financial tides.

The one-year fiscal cycle has worked reasonably well up until now. Although those of us who think skyrocketing state spending is a problem will argue it hasn’t brought about any discipline when it comes to the expenditure of our hard earned money.

This year has been different. Governor Ed Rendell was late presenting his proposed budget then tried to trick the legislature into approving a number of massive new spending programs. He advanced a fake budget filled with painful cuts and inadequate funding thinking the General Assembly would reject it. Republicans, with more experience in legislative maneuvering, quickly passed the Governor’s fake budget. Rendell then vetoed funding for public education thinking that would force Republicans back to the table. But, the Jersey shore beckoned and the stalemate continued.

So, here we are. Labor Day is past, school bells have rung, and for the first time in anyone’s memory the state still doesn’t have an education budget, school districts are scrambling for interim financing, and gridlock has gripped the state capitol.

Much of this, of course, is politics. But keep in mind this is not a legislative or gubernatorial election year – so if it is this bad now, imagine how difficult consensus will be to achieve when elections are just around the corner. So long as Pennsylvanians elect a Governor of one party, and a legislative majority of the other, such stalemates are inevitable.

The unique way the Pennsylvania legislature does business also nurtures gridlock. Real negotiating and real decisions are made by a handful of legislative leaders. The only influence most members of the General Assembly have in the budget process comes in fleeting comments during caucus meetings. With so few players involved the ability to form a budget-passing coalition is limited.

In the highly charged partisan atmosphere of Pennsylvania’s state capitol a two-year budget cycle is starting to make sense. If budgets are passed at the beginning of each two-year legislative session that would free legislators to focus more on long-term issues and planning. Perhaps we might even find we don’t need two-year legislative sessions.

From a financial standpoint, it would provide some stability for both taxpayers and tax-funded organizations to have some predictability in state taxation and spending. School districts, for example, would know the level of state subsidies far in advance of approving their own budgets and could make local spending decisions accordingly.

Like those retro jerseys and sneakers, two-year budget cycles may be something that was better than the new and improved version.