Pennsylvania’s financial problems won’t change with administrations

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     Pennsylvania Gov.-elect Tom Wolf discusses the state budget during a news conference in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

    Pennsylvania Gov.-elect Tom Wolf discusses the state budget during a news conference in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

    During his campaign Gov.-elect Tom Wolf seemingly never missed an opportunity to blame Gov. Corbett for the Commonwealth’s fiscal woes, but he’ll face the same – if not more daunting – challenges.

    As state Budget Secretary Charles Zogby put it, the recurring demands and decisions driving the budget and its projected $2 billion deficit are “like Groundhog day.”

    The cash shortfall, circular pension debates, and credit rating downgrades aren’t firsts for the Commonwealth.

    Those and other financial problems stem from decades of decisions and practices of myriad elected officials.

    Corbett, for example, contended with legislative gridlock.

    Among its casualties was a pension overhaul, which all three major ratings agencies cited as cause for Pennsylvania’s credit downgrades in 2014.

    Fitch, Moody’s, and Standard & Poor’s cited the state’s structural deficit and its legislature’s pension reform failures.

    They also warned of more downgrades unless the Commonwealth fixes its finances.

    Zogby agrees, and says along with pensions,  prisons and human services are expected to be major cost drivers in the near future.

    “We typically borrow every year,” Zogby says. “And when we do, … the ratings agencies will weigh in.”

    The thing is, worse credit means any borrowing will be more expensive.

    On the revenue side, Independent Fiscal Office Director Matthew Knittel identified problematic areas that are gradual — yet complex, like the state’s aging population.

    Others are more straightforward, such as shifting taxes to keep pace with technological changes like fewer landline phones.

    Wolf has recognized the need for changes without disclosing many details about possible solutions.

    He has said, however, he supports a natural gas extraction tax to benefit education, environmental regulation and clean energy development.

    No matter his preferred changes, Wolf is a Democrat seeking cooperation from a majority-Republican legislature.

    And that task eluded a governor of the same party for four years.

     

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