Say you’re apartment-hunting, and you find a place you love. The landlord says great, here’s how it works: you sign the lease now, and I’m going to have some closed-door meetings with my associates, and when we’re ready we’ll tell you what the rent, deposit, and utility payments will be. You’d walk, of course.
But that’s kind of like what the Pennsylvania legislature is doing now (as it does every year) as it decides the annual state budget. Big decisions about what taxes we pay, how the government works and how our tax dollars are spent are decided in secret by a handful of guys (and they are mostly guys) and passed in a flash.
Friday, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi told reporters it looked like lawmakers would pass another budget without taxing gas drillers, or raising any taxes at all and balance the books with some one-time measurers he wasn’t ready to reveal, three days before the budget deadline.
The one-time measures were revealed the next day (see this report by our capitol correspondent Mary Wilson), but there won’t be time for any meaningful public input before the budget is passed, perhaps later today.
To take just one example, there’s now a proposal to transfer $250 million from funds for small business loans and other programs to balance the budget. Don’t those affected by those programs deserve a hearing on the impact of those transfers?
A better way
Here’s a better way to do it: In Philadelphia City Council no budget or tax bill, or bill of any kind for that matter can become law until it (1) is debated at a real public hearing at which affected constituencies are heard, (2) passes what’s called a “first reading” at a session of Council, and (3) is then voted upon at a subsequent session for final passage.
What that means in practice is that a bill is published in final form and held for a week (in rare circumstances less, but always four days) before it is voted on. That gives anyone who’s delighted with or alarmed by what’s coming a chance to review the bill, do their research and mobilize to be heard while it still matters.
In Harrisburg, the boys meet, come out of their private sessions, and tell you what the rent will be. I know it’s done that way in a lot of places, and I understand that sometimes you have to have a private conversation to figure out what has enough support to fly.
But before any legislative body makes decisions of this magnitude, the public ought to have a reasonable change to examine the deal and make some meaningful comment.