News Column

On-time budget for Pennsylvania? Most wouldn't notice a short delay

June 29, 2014

By Charles Thompson, The Patriot-News, Harrisburg, Pa.



June 29--So who gets hurt if there is not a state budget signed, sealed and delivered by July 1, the start of Pennsylvania's new fiscal year?

Most likely, no one if the delay is short.

Court rulings in recent years have largely taken the threat of payless paydays for state employees -- one of former Gov. Ed Rendell's ploys during an extended stalemate in 2009 -- off the table.

And so far, Gov. Tom Corbett's administration has taken a don't worry, be happy tone with the Commonwealth's workforce this year, sending out this message early last week:

"In the event that a new budget is not enacted by the end of the current fiscal year (June 30), employees should continue to report to work as scheduled.

"Payroll will continue to be processed and there are no anticipated delays to employees' scheduled pay."

If negotiations on a 2014-15 spending plan do run into overtime, it would likely be because supporters of gas drilling or cigarette taxes have carried the day, giving the budget-builders hundreds of millions of new dollars to play with.

But in an election year with Republicans in charge of the governor's office, the state House and the state Senate, it's a safe bet that none of the above would want that dialogue to extend more than about a week.

In an unlikely worst-case scenario, the administration could still resort to temporary furloughs later this summer.

But even that can happen only after a 30-day notice. And there's been no such notice sent as of the end of last week, said Dan Egan, spokesman for Corbett's Office of Administration.

So for the time being, state parks and historic sites, which can get a lot of traffic for the 4th of July holiday, should be fully open.

"We've been advised of no changes in any services or hours at this time," said Terry Brady, deputy press secretary for the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which manages the state parks and forests.

Lottery games will continue to be played, and casinos will continue to take bets.

And of course, all public safety functions -- state police and corrections -- will continue unabated.

There can be more immediate consequences for others, Egan noted.

Businesses in contracts with the state, from those providing food to the prisons to information technology consultants to crews painting a bridge for PennDOT may see payments delayed.

State aid earmarked to community organizations like food banks and domestic violence shelters could be held up.

But an impasse that lasts only a few days should be largely unfelt by the average Pennsylvanian, according to information provided by the Corbett Administration this week.

Here's a Pennsylvanian's users guide to other questions about a short-term budgetary limbo:

Will services performed by third-party contractors continue to be provided?

Standard contract terms state that the commonwealth's obligation to make payments during any future fiscal year are subject to the availability and appropriation of funds.

It also provides that those contractors continue working or providing services, with the understanding that they will be made whole as soon as the new budget is in place.

What about the state aid to the poor, elderly and out-of-work?

All government-run welfare and personal assistance programs will continue, including: medical assistance, welfare programs like aid to Women, Infants and Children; and unemployment benefits.

All pension payments to retired state employees and retired school teachers will also continue.

Will PennDOT highway construction projects be affected?

According to Corbett's budget office, construction can proceed, but vendor payments for goods or services committed against fiscal year 2014-15 funds would be blocked until the budget is enacted.

Payments committed against 2013-14 funds will continue to be paid.

What about school funding?

To the extent that these funds must be appropriated by the General Assembly, most state aid to schools will be stopped.

But the first basic education subsidy payments -- the biggest chunk of state aid -- doesn't typically go out until August, so if this debate gets wrapped up within a week or two, district bottom lines shouldn't be greatly affected.

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(c)2014 The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.)

Visit The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.) at www.pennlive.com

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