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Editorial - Spending responsibly

January 19, 1998

Editorial - Spending responsibly

Like Maryland, Pennsylvania is in the enviable position of having an unexpected budget surplus to greet today's opening of the 1998 legislative session. But like their Maryland counterparts, Pennsylvania lawmakers will soon find that having more money than you know what to do with is no guarantee of happiness.

Pennsylvania's surplus for the current fiscal year is now projected at $181 million, but could reach $300 million when the budget year ends on June 30. Until it's clear that revenues will come in at these levels in future years, it doesn't make sense to commit to the multi-year expenditures new programs would require.

That said, it will probably be impossible to defeat Republican Gov. Tom Ridge's proposal to eliminate the state income tax for families of four earning $25,000 or less each year. Cutting those taxes would be fair and compassionate, but would cost $54 million a year, or almost one third of the projected surplus. Add in Ridge's proposals for more business tax relief and the surplus suddenly doesn't seem as large as it did.

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For their part, Democratic legislators would like to use some of the surplus money to cut tuition at state colleges and to funnel more money to poorer school districts and job-training programs. Again, these are good ideas, but they are also attempts to create multi-year benefits based on a surplus that may not be available next year.

Now we realize that this is an election year, and that presented with this pot of money, the temptation to give one's constituents what they want today - regardless of what it means tomorrow -is almost irresistible. But citizens don't (or shouldn't) elect lawmakers to play Santa Claus, but to be good stewards of the state's resources.

With that in mind, here's our recommendation: For every measure that grants relief based on the current surplus, citizens should ask lawmakers identify how they would continue that relief, if future years should yield no surplus. By forcing lawmakers to think about tomorrow, citizens just might persuade them to be more prudent today.

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