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Lawmakers act to reduce Pa. debt

JASMINE GEHRIS
The Capitol building in Harrisburg

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Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

HARRISBURG

It took a 16-day federal government shutdown to prompt the Pennsylvania General Assembly to limit borrowing for economic development projects. The contrast made by state lawmakers with their federal counterparts was part symbolic and part substantive.

As the dysfunctional federal government was careening toward a debt crisis averted only at the 11th hour, Pennsylvania was reducing its debt. The Legislature sent Gov. Tom Corbett a bill that reduces the cap on borrowing for Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) projects by $600 million. Corbett is expected to sign it.

It's long been a personal goal of House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, who railed at former Democrat Gov. Ed Rendell using the RACP fund as a piggy bank for projects across the state. Borrowing for those projects increased from approximately $1 billion to $4 billion under Rendell.

Keep in mind that the House didn't eliminate the program, which some have criticized for wasteful and politically connected projects. But it did establish better controls and add transparency including public hearing requirements, said Rep. Matt Gabler, R-Clearfield, the bill's sponsor.

To demonstrate the lack of vetting before, Rendell told Trib reporter Debra Erdley on his last day in office in January 2011 that he did not know there was a hospital (Monroeville's Forbes Regional) just a mile away when he signed off on a $5 million grant for UPMC East.

It's often a mystery who the legislative sponsors are of multimillion-dollar programs. Job creation estimates typically seem inflated. Instead of resting on their laurels, state lawmakers should be digging deeper into the RACP for more transparency and reform. But what happened last week was a strong first step.

Corbett has been spending about $125 million annually from the Legislature's approved wish lists. Rendell spent on average $547 million a year, said Turzai's spokesman Stephen Miskin.

Here's the Washington comparison. The state House-approved bill languished in the state Senate last year. The House approved it again in February and it sat in the Senate until Wednesday (as the federal debt crisis loomed). Approval was then fast, furious and unanimous.

Turzai indicated the Senate seemed interested in timing and the voting history appears to support that. But the House didn't exactly bury the contrast. A House Republican press release carried the headline “No Gridlock in PA as Debt Reduction Bill Heads to Governor.” The first sentence stated, “In stark contrast to what is happening in Washington ... .” So something positive, perhaps, emerged from the federal shutdown.

“Unlike the current dysfunction we currently see in Washington, D.C., we are showing in Pennsylvania that we can work in a bipartisan, bicameral manner to responsibly manage taxpayer dollars,” said Gabler, calling it a “good government” bill.

In a rare sign of that bicameral cooperation, the House GOP news release quoted Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County.

Still, if one believes the Republican-controlled Legislature is the hallmark of efficiency, just look at its record in 2012 and 2013 of failing to approve the governor's top priorities of liquor-store divestiture, increasing transportation revenue and pension reform.

Brad Bumsted is the state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media (717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com).

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