Tom Corbett’s Budget Doesn’t Play by Family Rules

The governor says he cut state spending, just like you would've. Is that true?

“I decided I would run state government just as you would run state government,” Gov. Tom Corbett says in his first official commercial of the 2014 campaign. “So what we did is reduce spending, just like you would reduce spending if you lost money coming in.”

Though he doesn’t quite say so, this comes pretty close to repeating one of the biggest clichés of modern political rhetoric: The idea that a government budget is just like your family’s budget. There are lots of reasons why that analogy isn’t quite true, but let’s play along with the governor for a moment. Did he treat Pennsylvania’s fiscal crisis the way you’d solve household financial problems?

Doubtful. Here’s why.

• When money’s tight at home, you still send your kids to school. If nothing else, you realize that your kids will need education and training of their own to survive in a challenging economy. Corbett, on the other hand, made massive cuts to Pennsylvania’s education budget — as much as $1 billion, by some counts, but roughly half of that was expiring federal stimulus money. Let’s give the governor the benefit of the doubt, then, and say he merely cut $500 million from state education spending. That’s still a massive amount.

When money’s tight at home, the purchases you do make, more than ever, reflect your values. While Corbett opted not to replace lost federal education funding with state dollars, he made different choices elsewhere. During the same time period he was making education cuts, Corbett replaced a lost $187 million in federal funding for Pennsylvania prisons with … state taxpayer dollars

• When money’s tight at home, you don’t leave money on the table. It’s true that raising taxes in a recession can inhibit the economic growth you want to encourage, but there might have been one exception to the rule: the Marcellus Shale. As StateImpact explains, “At $50,000 dollars per well, Pennsylvania is the only gas producing state that imposes a fee instead of a tax directly on the amount of gas extracted from wells.” The fee system means that a productive well pays the exact same amount as a less-productive well; taxing by volume would generate more money from more productive wells. And the tax proposed for Pennsylvania would be lower than other gas-producing states — while still generating hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue — meaning it would be unlikely to chase the drillers, and the jobs they create, away. Best of both worlds! Corbett’s decision, though, means Pennsylvania got the best of nothing. Not a choice you’d make for your family.

• When money’s tight at home, you spend less on treats and goodies for your friends. The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center estimates that corporate tax breaks have risen to more than $3 billion under Corbett. “The benefit of this change to Pennsylvania’s economy is debatable. What cannot be questioned is the impact of these tax cuts on Pennsylvania’s schools, colleges and community programs, which now have to do more with less to provide critical services to our most vulnerable citizens,” the think tank reported. In my household, we don’t spend money to throw bachelor parties until the rent is paid. Corbett, in this case, got it backward.

“The people of Pennsylvania sent me to Harrisburg, not to make friends, but to make a difference,” the governor concludes. Maybe. But if he’d aligned his budget priorities with those used by my family — and yours — maybe he’d have a few more friends ready to support his re-election.

Follow @joelmmathis on Twitter.