By PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Though the primary election is less than a week away, some eyes in the state capital are turning toward the state budget battle that looms in the months ahead.
Specifically, those eyes belong to Gov. Tom Corbett, who is not running in this year’s primary that falls in the middle of his four-year term. Corbett is juggling competing pressures from Pennsylvania school districts seeking more funding, lawmakers clamoring for a transportation funding plan and an ongoing, worsening state pension crisis.
Meanwhile, new data show that state revenue is at its highest level ever, lending more credence to the governor’s argument that spending, not revenue, is the source of the state’s problem.
And with the primary Tuesday, independent voters are feeling left out of the closed-door process.
The conventional wisdom for the past few years is that the economic downturn wrecked state government finances nationally by undercutting income taxes as people were laid off and sales taxes as consumers spent less.
But new data from the U.S. Census Bureau paint a different picture, both for the nation and Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania’s collections climbed by more than $2 billion last year, as the state took in more than $32 billion from beleaguered taxpayers, the highest amount the state has ever collected.
“The nationwide increases in state government tax revenue are an indication of the stabilization of revenues for state governments,” said Lisa Blumerman, chief of the Governments Division for the Census Bureau. “These data help us understand the condition of our state governments and their fiscal ability to continue to provide public services.”
The 2011 Annual Survey of State Government Tax Collections
contains annual statistics on the fiscal year tax collections of all 50 state governments, including receipts from licenses and compulsory fees. This survey provides an annual summary of taxes collected by states for up to 25 tax categories, including related penalty and interest receipts of the governments.
In 2008, Pennsylvania collected $32.1 billion in taxes from all sources, the year before the Great Recession supposedly wrecked the state’s finances.
The Keystone State’s revenue declined in 2009 and barely rebounded in 2010, but the decrease was hardly dramatic.
In fact, in 2009 Pennsylvania collected more tax revenue from than in 2006, according to the census data.
But in 2006, few state government officials were crying about a budget crisis. By last year, revenue had rebounded, exceeding 2008 levels.
Corbett said Monday he is talking with legislative leaders about solving the state’s growing public pension costs.
And a high-ranking member of the House GOP indicated that addressing the pension systems of financially strapped public schools would be a good first step.
The pension payments are expected to climb to more than $4 billion by the fiscal year that begins in July 2016, making the pension funds one of the largest cost drivers in state government, Corbett said.
State Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery, confirmed that discussions have taken place. The first goal is pension reform targeting public school districts with the biggest financial problems, he said.
Neither Corbett nor Vereb gave specifics on what the plan might be, though Vereb said it could be tied to the state budget, which is supposed to be passed in June.
More than 1 million registered voters in Pennsylvania will not be allowed to participate in Tuesday’s primary election, even though they help pay for the candidate-selection process.
Under state law, Pennsylvania’s primary election is closed, meaning only voters registered with either the Republican or Democratic parties may vote.
Voters registered as independents or with third-party affiliations are helping pick up the tab for what is, essentially, an internal process in which only Republican and Democratic voters can take part.
Independents and third-party groups say they are being frozen out of an important step in the electoral process, but the major parties defend the system as necessary, because only their members are choosing the respective nominees.
About half of the states have open primaries — which allow all voters to participate regardless of affiliation — or partially open primaries that allow independents to vote in one of the major party primaries.
Jennifer Bullock is founder and director of Independent Pennsylvanians, a grassroots organization of about 500 registered independents who fight for equal ballot access and open primaries. She said the primary election is the first step of a two-level process and all should have access, as they do in the general election in November.
“Essentially, we’re locked out of the critical first round of the electoral process,” she said. “It’s part of a system that perpetuates the lack of political power for those who choose to not be a part of the two major parties.”
The major parties defend the current system by saying that open primaries would allow non-members to select their nominees for the general election.
Longtime incumbent state Rep. Rick Geist, R-Blair, is seeking his 18th term, as he tries to ward off a heated challenge from John McGinnis, a professor of finance at Penn State-Altoona and a former talk radio host.
It’s one of several races this year that pits a tea party-backed conservative challenger against a longtime incumbent.
McGinnis, a Republican with libertarian views, said he opposes the federal war on drugs, would decline a state pension if elected and supports a repeal of prevailing wage laws that unions favor.
The 79th District includes the city of Altoona and parts of surrounding Blair County. With Altoona teetering on the edge of financially distressed status — at which point the state would step in to oversee the city's operations — the race has an added level of tension.
McGinnis, a relative newcomer to politics, has been criticizing Geist’s support for pension increases, spending hikes and ties to politically powerful unions.
“He has been there too long, and he needs to be retired,” McGinnis said of Geist. “There is too much career politics in Harrisburg, and it is hurting the state.”
“I just keep doing the job and every two years I go before the board of directors — the voters. They keep sending me back,” he said.
The governor told reporters he’s unwilling to increase costs when gas is nearing $4 per gallon.
Corbett said he also was waiting for a sign from the federal government on how it plans to address the nation’s transportation deficiencies. So far, there has been nothing.
Among those proposals was uncapping a portion of the state’s gasoline tax — already the 10th highest in the nation — that would add about 10 cents to the price at the pump. The plan also called for higher vehicle registration and drivers license fees.