$850 Million in the Hole

The last two weeks have seen a lot of cheering* and celebration* over the passing* of the 2010 Pennsylvania Budget.  This is good* news because unlike last year’s disaster, not a single state agency was forced to alter operations and not a single state employee was forced to work without pay.  Now that the budget is finally* in place*, we can go on with our lives* and enjoy things as they are for the next 11.5 months.

* – There’s a catch.

It’s as if Peter Falk, dressed in full Columbo attire, reached down from above, tapped Rendell on the shoulder as he was walking away from his congratulatory speech, and said “Oh!  Er uh, there’s just one more thing.”

Because it would be asinine for our legislature to do things like sane people would, this year’s budget was passed with the assumption that Pennsylvania will receive $850 million in federal funding.  Unfortunately, it’s beginning to look like we won’t.

I don’t know how you do your own personal budget, but I’m willing to make a fairly safe bet that at some point in the process, you add up all your assets and distribute them among your liabilities.  Your paycheck gets carved up between rent, mortgage, car payments, student loans, day care, food, taxes, retirement, healthcare, credit cards, and whatever other obligations you have.  Simple enough, right?

Naturally, that’s not how they do things over in the legislature.

The 2010-2011 budget clocked in at $28.04 billion.  Of that, $850 million is anticipated — but not guaranteed — to come from the federal government.  At just over 3% of the total budget, it appears to be a fairly small slice.  If your personal paychecks totaled $5000 in a given month, this would be like allocating $150 of your budget.

The problem is, that’s not entirely accurate.  Sure, it’s 3% of the total budget.  But $850 million — $850,000,000.00 — is a lot of money.  I mean, a LOT.  If you put that in a savings account today (yes, I know, you wouldn’t put that much money in a single account; bear with me), then even today’s paltry 1.25% interest rates would earn you a whopping $10.6 million in interest annually.

If you divide $850 million by a salary of $45,000 (a number I’ve admittedly pulled out of nowhere to represent the annual salary of a state employee, from the most entry-level grade-1 employee to the highest executives), it would pay a full year’s salary for 18,667 employees — or a lifetime 35-year salary for 533 employees.  In fact, those numbers are actually higher, as this doesn’t account for the state income and sales taxes paid by those employees.

$850 million is enough to a school district the size of Central Dauphin for the next half-century.  For that matter, it’s enough to give 50+ schools the size of Central Dauphin one year of taxpayer-free operation.

$850 million would be enough to pay off the remaining debt on the Harrisburg incinerator, AND pay the city’s entire operating budget for the next eight years, AND hand out a generous $4.75 million refund to all 47,500 (estimated) city residents (that’s $100 per person, to clarify), AND devote nearly $30 million to city beautification (actual dogparks, anyone?).

$850 million would give every Pennsylvanian six cases of “Pennsylvania Style Lager” (you know that $9.99 30-case of beer you see at the distributor?  The stuff you buy when Keystone Light is “too high-brow” for your function?  The stuff you get when you “ain’t servin’ none o’ that there fancy elitist Bud Light stuff”?  Yeah … it’s like spilling a can of Coors Light into a puddle along Front Street, then lapping it up three days later).  Or, one case of the really good stuff.

$850 million would buy every Pennsylvanian a pet monkey.  (edit: Sorry, we already have a legislature)

$850 million would fund major progress towards eliminating the homeless problem in Pennsylvania.  While exact numbers are difficult to come by — largely because homelessness is such a fluid problem — it would go a long way towards building or enhancing shelters that provide 24-hour access to showers (try getting a job when you haven’t showered in two weeks), food (free groceries help, but not when you can’t refrigerate them), means of contact (try applying for even a temp labor job without an address), basic medical treatment (you and I already foot the bill when someone without insurance visits the ER), and basic counselling.

$850 million would revitalize the dead zone near the intersection of Market & Cameron Streets in Harrisburg — and then some.  Imagine that row of vacant warehouses converted into loft condos, boutique shops (think a St. Thomas Roasters satellite instead of Starbucks), restaurants, and office space.

$850 million may only be 3% of our state’s annual budget, but it’s still a massive amount of cash.

And yet to our legislature, $850 million is throwaway amount.  Because it represents only a fraction of the Pennsylvania’s budget, they aren’t interested in its implications.  They don’t even have a contingency plan if it gets denied.  They passed the budget assuming — and knowing the risk — that the $850 million would make it through.

Now that it’s looking like it won’t, what do we do?