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Don't let pupils be held hostage in budget fights

February 06, 2004

What seems like a common-sense measure to keep state funds flowing to schools even if elected officials are feuding is drawing opposition from some Pennsylvania legislators. Drop it, we say. Students shouldn't be held hostage during a political battle.

That's what happened for five and a half months last year, when Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell and the Republican-controlled state legislature locked horns over the budget.

In all, more than $4 billion in state school subsidies were withheld, forcing districts to drain their reserves and borrow money to keep schools open. Neither side was blameless, since both put winning ahead of any possible damage to the systems and the students.

To prevent anything like that from happening again, Rep. David Hickernell, R-Lancaster, has introduced a bill that would give districts the same amount they received the prior year, if the budget isn't completed by Aug. 15.

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There are two problems facing the bill. The first is that it would be funded by creation of a fund of general fund cash not earmarked for any other purpose. But the subsidies that were withheld last year totalled $4 billion. Creating a fund that large on the chance it would be needed is an invitation to "borrow" cash without going through the usual budget process.

The bill's second obstacle is that a few Democratic legislators oppose it on constitutional grounds, saying that it would require an amendment to create such a fund.

But as Rep. Hickernell noted, the state constitution already requires the legislature to support a "thorough and efficient" school system.

That's a vague definition, but the two parties should be able to promise that if passage of the budget is delayed, subsidies would still be set at 85 percent of current year allocations.

That would give districts some assurance that funds would be coming in and lawmakers some room to cut even if the budget process is slowed.

It shouldn't require a constitutional amendment for lawmakers to agree that keeping the doors of the schools open is more important than any budget battle. All that's required is a promise to keep the school money flowing, a promise that should carry a political price for those who don't keep it.

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