There is a passage in Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” that ought to be memorized by school children. It reads ““Political language. . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Orwell, who would look at us each carrying a device that has a microphone and a camera in our pocket hooked into a national communications network and laugh at our simplicity of mind, understood what most of us seem to willingly forget: truth is often defined to the individual by perspective. Put another way, from the right point of view lies can sound truthful.
This week, in Harrisburg, was a perfect example. In case you missed it, we now have a “surplus!” That’s right folks, we have us an honest to goodness new found pile of money to the tune of $500M! And since we didn’t expect it, it can be tagged a “surplus” and slobbered over by every line item and lobbying firm in town.
There is only one problem – it is not a surplus except by date of receipt. It’s more accurately viewed as a reduction in the budget deficit we face – which now drops from $4.2B to $3.7 thanks to above projection revenues. In essence, all we have is a less bleak picture than expected (thank you Marcellus; more on that another day) – which is, believe me, great news.
But the rush to call this a surplus and to start fighting over what to do with it is a silly construct in light of the facts on the ground. After all, the administration has proposed cutting basic education funding by nearly a billion dollars and higher education by another half of a billion; adult basic was gutted for lack of funds; and line items were slashed – justifiably so – in order to fit under a revenue number that the Governor determined would be driven by receipts. Under such circumstances, driven by a deficit measured in the billions of dollars, the discovery of $500M in extra revenue is hardly saleable as a “surplus” in the modern context of the word.
If we have more money than expected, the right thing is to soften the rate of those proposed cuts and little else – because the cuts are so harsh and will remain so even with the additional money available. And, bluntly, absent an Orwellian conceit, any revenue over projection is hardly a surplus when it is still dramatically less than we need to operate at current levels – it is a salve, something that can lessen the pain. It is a welcome development to be sure, but to call it a surplus?
But there is an Orwellian reason why every professional political operative – both inside and out – want to make sure this is tagged a “surplus:” extra money need not be viewed as committed. It can be applied to each of the four caucuses’ and the administration’s priorities if we accept this distinction. This is, in fact, exactly what would have happened in the past.
We should not allow it to be so used this time. The circumstances are decidedly different from any past surplus. We have an immediate need for additional funding for the most basic of state services – assisting our sick and injured working poor with insurance and educating our children, so they need not be working poor in the future – that the use of this money in almost any other manner would be to reject the core functions of our government at the state level.
It would be doubly cruel considering that we are mired in a sputtering economic recovery; when food prices are at historic highs and likely to be pushed higher by flooding across the Midwest; and when gas prices are elevated and vulnerable to the next Middle Eastern conflagration. We are in precarious times and I am on record accepting the need for austerity – but I am not, nor will I ever, accept austerity for the sake of crass political priorities.
None of us should. The “found money” is ours as a collective, not the slush fund for the political elites of both parties. It should be used to provide the broadest benefit to our Commonwealth and reflect the shared values of its citizens.
Otherwise, we will just be giving an appearance of solidity to the pure political wind blowing through the halls of the Capitol.
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