Pa.'s semantic games

| Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The other great rhetorical game unfolding along the banks of the Susquehanna is the "Pennsylvania has a budget surplus" charade.

In his efforts to escape legal entanglements resulting from the Monica Lewinsky scandal, former President Bill Clinton once answered a prosecutor's question by saying "it depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is." That quote quickly became the gold standard in rhetorical equivocating.

Politicians here in Penn's Woods are working hard this budget season to be Clintonesque in their parsing of words. Given the commonwealth's financial shambles, the word games are especially clever on the topic of taxes and the budget.

Leading the parade are the Republican leaders in the state Senate who are at odds with Gov. Tom Corbett and their more conservative colleagues in the state House who have vowed to hold the line on taxes and control spending. Senate leaders, by contrast, are fighting tooth and nail to increase spending and raise taxes.

Oops, not taxes; fees.

The main targets this year are companies drilling for Marcellus shale gas. Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati and company are acting like Ritalin-deprived schoolchildren in their desire to tax the gas industry more. The GOP's top senator wants to add a $10,000 annual per-well tax in addition to the wide array of taxes already paid by the drillers. He calls this a fee because the money would go to local municipalities and the state's Growing Greener fund, a cleverly named honey pot for lawmakers.

Scarnati calls the tax a fee because he knows Corbett and many legislators have signed the no-new-taxes pledge promoted by anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform. So now, Senate Republican Leader Domenic Pileggi has offered legislation to implement the tax/fee, but designate proceeds to offset future — not current — property tax obligations for senior citizens.

Scarnati and Pileggi are playing the "meaning of the word 'is'" game. Their "it's for the kids" reason for implementing a severance tax on Marcellus gas didn't fly. Nor did their "it's for the environment" excuse. Now Pileggi is playing the "it's for the old folks" card. He admits he's doing this to get around the no-tax pledge. But in the tea party age, voters aren't fooled by such semantic games. Simply put, voters know a tax when they see one — and this is a tax.

This is playing out against the backdrop of the other great rhetorical game unfolding along the banks of the Susquehanna — the "Pennsylvania has a budget surplus" charade. Because revenue collections for April and May ran some $500 million over projections, the spend-a-holics see a surplus. But the state's general fund budget has a $4.5-billion deficit, so the $500 million "increase" simply reduces the deficit to $4 billion. And a deficit is a deficit no matter how you define "is."

Fiscal problems have resulted in painful budget cuts, especially in education. But the cuts resulted largely because Gov. Ed Rendell and the Senate's GOP leadership based the education budget on federal stimulus money, even though that revenue stream was temporary. Having played Santa Claus, the state must now be a Grinch.

The recent revenue "surplus" must be viewed as temporary. The economic recovery shows signs of faltering — housing prices down and unemployment rising amid fears of higher inflation. It would not be prudent to budget based upon the track record of the past few months.

But under the Capitol dome a tax is a fee and a deficit is a surplus. Too many legislators of both parties fail us by allowing special interests to feed at the trough. Their leaders need to make tough, necessary budget decisions — assuming they know what leadership is, which, of course, depends on how you define "is."

Lowman S. Henry, a former Westmoreland County GOP chair, is CEO of the Lincoln Institute in Harrisburg. Contact him at: .

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