by Lowman S. Henry | March 24, 2005

Brightbill proposal would limit future spending increases

As next year’s election for Governor of Pennsylvania approaches, Republicans under the Capitol dome are starting to act a bit more like, well, Republicans.

A look back at the first few years of the Rendell administration finds a landscape strewn with wanton spending and reckless tax hikes. The governor has been traveling around Pennsylvania handing out “economic development” checks with the zeal of a large bunny on Easter morning. The state budget continues to skyrocket more rapidly than either the rate of inflation or the rate of increase in the statewide worker’s average weekly wage.

It is tempting, of course, to blame all of this on Ed Rendell. But the fact is Republicans have controlled both houses of the General Assembly throughout his administration, so the GOP is complicit in the spending spree as well. Now, to be fair, most legislative Republicans have opposed the governor’s spending initiatives – and most of the votes have come from the Democrat side of the aisle. But, each time more big government spending was up for a vote, enough Republicans deserted their party’s principals to give Rendell the votes he needed.

The political climate in Harrisburg reached a tipping point recently when State Senate Majority Leader David J. “Chip” Brightbill told the Pennsylvania Press Club that he will propose a law to limit state spending increases. And, if Governor Rendell vetoes the bill, he will seek an amendment to the state’s constitution to enforce spending caps.

Brightbill has dubbed his legislation the “Taxpayer Fairness Act.” Details of his proposal have yet to emerge, but it is significant that a legislative leader has decided to become the prime sponsor of such legislation. That virtually ensures the bill will get a hearing, and a floor vote. In the past such efforts, lacking the backing of a legislative heavy weight, went nowhere.

Conservative groups have long sought to have spending in Pennsylvania limited by either statute, or preferably by constitutional amendment. Other states, notably Colorado, have such limits and they have served to restrain over-spending in good times, and limit economy-busting tax hikes during recessionary periods. So, Brightbill will find a wide array of allies ready to help him with this fight.

But, Brightbill’s motives are not totally altruistic. His speech to the Press Club was highly partisan, and he said he is proposing the Taxpayer Fairness Act to curb Rendell’s “love of spending.” The problem he may encounter is that all too many Republicans are smitten by the same illicit love. The record shows that many in the GOP, including one running for governor, have enabled Rendell’s spending habit.

All the politics aside, however, Brightbill’s proposal makes for excellent public policy. There will always be pressure on legislators and the governor to spend more. Every day, all day, they hear from spending interests asking for more money. Absent from that daily cacophony is the voice of the taxpayer who must pay for all this spending.

Not since the days of the Thornburgh Administration has there been real spending restraint in Harrisburg. This is a case where our elected officials are clearly unable to collectively contain themselves. Thus, statutory or constitutional spending limits are the only way spending discipline can be achieved. Whatever his motives, whatever his party’s past, Senator Brightbill has agreed to champion a cause whose time has clearly come.