Going Public, Learning New Skills

Posted on Tue 08/04/2009 by

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By Tim Potts of Democracy Rising PA

It has been 177 days since Gov. Ed Rendell proposed a budget to the General Assembly. (As of today, 180 days. Rendell has caused more late budgets than the last 5 Govenors! —ed) It has been a 31-day month since the state lost authority to spend General Fund money because it has not yet been appropriated. (The state can still spend federal money and money in other funds.) We still have no state budget.

Indeed we have precious little to show for the passage of time. The House and Senate have adopted 14 times as many resolutions (410) as they have enacted laws (28). Most citizens would be happier with the passage of just one law – and soon – and may even give up the resolutions that have mostly symbolic effect but a very real cost.

Finally we have a conference committee of the House and Senate, whose business is to reconcile competing proposals, but nothing has been reconciled. The only thing they agreed about was what they disagree about. Republicans want to set total revenues and thereby back into expenditures. Democrats want to set total expenditures and thereby back into revenues.

If a budget is a statement of priorities, then there is a third way: work on expenditures for the highest priorities while working on a revenue number. Whatever the total revenue number turns out to be, it’s enough to fund education. So the conference committee can agree what they want to spend on this highest priority, then go onto the next highest priority, and so on until they agree either:

  • that they’ve run out of money; or
  • that they can’t cut even the lowest priorities any further and have to raise the money somehow to afford them.

It’s all about priorities, which makes this budget so hard. For many years, lawmakers have not had to stare people in the eyes and say, “No.” There was money for all. Now there’s not. And it’s not easy to say that some things just are a lower priority than others.  This approach is vaguely reminiscent of zero-based budgeting, a popular approach for much of the 1990s. ZBB starts with a budget of zero then builds up to a final number.

It thereby challenges assumptions, often revealing some sacred cows to be little more than sacred bull while also revealing that some real sacred cows are malnourished. Click here for more about ZBB from Investopedia.com.

The conference committee met on Wednesday and Thursday. It consists of six members, three from the House and three from the Senate. The majority party in each chamber has two members; the minority party has one. This results in three Democrats and three Republicans.

Perhaps most important is that the meetings were conducted in public for the first time. The Pennsylvania Cable Network covered the meetings live and is re-running them.

On both days, Rendell said the open meetings show why budgets have to be negotiated in secret. His daily whine about the budget blamed “posturing” for the lack of progress, saying that only private meetings can produce real results. He somehow forgot to use the Pay Raise of 2005 to illustrate real results.

Even so, he has a point, but not the one he’s trying to make. Yes, there was more posturing than policy during the two days. Indeed it was so painful to watch that one could conclude the entire episode has been designed to prove that open meetings are a bad idea, and the back room is the only room where public officials “get real.”

This misses the lessons that come from watching the performance of our representatives and senators. Chief among them is that these men – there are no women – have a lot of skills. They are able to say awful things to and about each other and their positions without descending to tantrums. For the most part, they can speak in complete sentences. For the most part, they are conversant with the few issues they have discussed so far. Some even know when to shut up after they’ve made their point.

These are some of the skills, both governmental and political, that have enabled them to be elected leaders. Now they need to learn the most important and elusive skill of all: how to conduct the public’s most important business in public. That’s the lesson of this week’s meetings, not that the meetings should be private.

It’s a tough time to practice this new skill, during the worst economic circumstances in decades. But that’s a self-inflicted wound. They could have learned this skill long ago. Before 2005 would have spared us the continuing trauma of the Pay Raise.

Meanwhile voters have a firm grip on reality, giving Rendell his lowest approval rating ever at 39 percent and the legislature an approval rating of 27 percent, just one point above its standing after the Pay Raise of 2005. Click here for last week’s poll by Quinnipiac University.

Just FYI:
The only caucus leader who is not on the conference committee is Senate Minority Leader Bob Mellow, D-Lackawanna. A lot of good his 38 years in the Senate are doing us.

P.O. Box 618, Carlisle, PA 17013