Whether revenue increases in Pennsylvania’s new transportation bill were tax increases in violation of a governor’s promise or added user fees never interested me much because really, in the end, what difference does it make? On November 25, 2013 Pennsylvania Governor Corbett signed into law a bill to raise $2.3 Billion annually for the state’s transportation infrastructure. That’s an amount roughly 8% of the entire state general fund budget, and an increase of 40% over existing transportation expenditures. Those arguing its necessity claimed the state had failed to keep up with repairs and we had a lot of catching up to do before something really tragic happened, usually involving a school bus full of children.
I had no objection to spending whatever necessary on what I consider a core function of government and understood what some didn’t want to admit, that tax contributions per mile had gone down due to vehicles becoming more fuel efficient. Part of any increase would be, in reality, a restoration of taxes (or fees) previously adopted and paid. No one had complained as they were paying less over time, a point not disputed even as it was mostly ignored.
Still, many fought to stop the increase, especially among the most fiscally conservative legislators. Times were still tough after all. Rep Steve Bloom argued for prioritization of projects within transportation and no increase. He voted against the bill and the wishes of our Governor and party leadership. So did my Rep, Mike Regan, along with others, who, in the process, learned about the application of party pressure to get in line.
I respect these legislators and others who stood their ground. On the left or the right, progressive or classic liberal, on any particular issue goose stepping is still goose stepping. I like legislators that can show they have a mind of their own, stand on their principles and then defend their decisions. We need more of them.
Thinking back, I remember tweeting in favor of increased transportation funding, but without tax increases, by “earning” the funds by doing the hard work, the Bloom prioritization, plus promoting legislation likely to save money and bolster revenues. I urged tying in pension reform, right to work, and prevailing wage reform, but shouldn’t have stopped there. It could have been used as an opportunity, a very useful exercise, for legislators to challenge each other to find waste that could be cut throughout the entire state budget. Everything on the table. Get serious time. Stop with the business as usual. Dreaming!
My thoughts returned to the transportation issue last Thursday evening at a West Shore SD school board meeting. The topic was repairs to structural failure on an 87 year old middle school building. The entrance side of the building is brick. The necessary repair work is on the right side of the entrance, and will require repointing the brickwork as part of the much larger project. The architect provided a base estimate, with repointing the unaffected left side of the entrance as a $58,800 add on. The total base estimate is around $700,000. Of several potential add on items, the additional repointing was the one most highly suggested by the architect, but with no mention of particular urgency.
It was then mentioned that due to tough economic times, the possibility of getting bids well below estimates was a distinct possibility. Hearing that, one member of the board immediately suggested that would be an opportunity to seriously look at the additional repointing. Yikes! What about the opportunity to save the taxpayer some money? Must they look for ways to spend potential savings simply because it had been budgeted? There had even been earlier discussion of having in house maintenance employees do repointing work. What about that?
It exposed a pet peeve. So many times I’ve encountered politicians, claiming staunch fiscal conservatism, who identify waste only to immediately suggest other uses they deem more important rather than suggesting returning the savings to the taxpayer. Even they, once they’ve got it, are often inclined to want to keep it.
It was that school board meeting experience and the pet peeve that drove my thinking back to the transportation issue. Remember, the state had fallen woefully, and some argued dangerously, behind on road and bridge repair and upkeep. So they needed significant catch up money on top of that required to satisfy today’s ongoing needs. That’s fine and quite understandable, except a day will come when the backlog is caught up. Will anyone then think of returning those unneeded funds to the taxpayer? Was it ever suggested to write such a provision into the bill? Or will projects that would otherwise never have been considered, with little notice, fill the void in spending to the new budget? Yep, once they’ve got it!
Note: This post shared to WatchdogWire-Pennsylvania 1/21/2014