Given the disruptive and unsettling budget crises of the past three years, and the still uncertain return of the revenue measures put in place, principles of fiscal responsibility seem to dictate a conservative approach to state spending. However, 2018 is an election year. Experience warns there is substantial risk that politics will override fiscal sense. The trouble is that more spending without corresponding reform scores political points instead of solving problems for families and communities.
Taxpayers are hoping they do not hear the standard litany of spending increases wrapped in the rhetoric of record investments. The emphasis should be on performance, getting better results and greater value from existing programs and services. There are many places in the budget where the public interest requires a serious concentration on revamping or readjusting the approaches taken.
In the wake of horrific scandals and tragedies, we have toughened child protection laws and enforcement. Nevertheless, an auditor general report starkly underscores there has not been enough attention devoted to the structure that is supposed to protect children and prevent abuse. Caseloads, training, salaries, and visit frequency are essential considerations for making a difference for at-risk kids.
Every administration in my experience has launched a workforce development initiative. As we continue to hear from employers about difficulties in finding suitably skilled, reliable workers, it is fairly evident another is needed. Greater communication and collaboration among state agencies is vital. More extensive partnerships between education and workplace should be forged, and more helpful career direction given to students and workers seeking to upgrade skills.
Complementing the national priority on infrastructure improvement, Pennsylvania needs a renewed commitment to what is often forgotten – water, sewer, and stormwater facilities and flood protection. Energy growth adds pipeline safety to this list. Such steps yield both environmental quality and community safety. Failure to upgrade and maintain these facilities will mean higher taxes for basic services and higher food prices, among other consequences.
An important element of patriotism is making sure that our obligations to Pennsylvania’s veterans are fulfilled. There have been solid efforts launched over the past decade to do better in connecting veterans with health care, housing, education, and training. But there are still unmet needs and substandard services, so we must push to do more and do better for veterans.
Natural disasters and man-made incidents remind us of the indispensable service of paid and volunteer emergency responders. Attracting and retaining volunteers is a constant worry in many communities, and we should provide additional incentives for responders so help is there when we need it.
In every budget, welfare programs are big cost-drivers. The governor vetoed a bill attaching work requirements to several programs, so we will be looking carefully at potential alternatives for controlling costs and increasing accountability. While the promises of cost savings and service efficiencies were attractive aspects of last year’s agency consolidation proposal, any new plan needs to be examined through an inclusive process that embraces stakeholder involvement and legislative input.
Look at the low satisfaction people express toward just about every aspect of state government, and it is apparent soaring rhetoric wrapped around budgeting as usual will do nothing to restore public trust and confidence. What is needed is better planning, more follow through, and greater accountability. Productive measurable results, not just the spending scorecard, will be how citizens judge our success.