Drowning in Debt, Not Just a Washington Problem
By Warren Kampf
The recent debate over our nation’s debt ceiling has had at least one positive result: it has helped bring this often overlooked issue into stark relief for taxpayers. That’s why I thought now would be a good time to discuss the issue of Pennsylvania’s debt.
Currently, Pennsylvania owes more than $4,000 for every man, woman and child in the state.
What makes up this figure? Many things.
The state’s pension liability, due to the chronic underfunding of state worker pensions, stands at $29.4 billion. That is $2 billion more than the total expenditures of the state budget passed in June.
According to the Department of Transportation, $3.5 billion is the annual shortfall in funds needed to repair and upgrade the 7,000 miles of deficient roads and bridges in Pennsylvania.
In addition to money we owe on pensions and roads, we hold $12.9 billion in general debt, another $4 billion borrowed from the Federal Unemployment Trust Fund, and possibly another $716 million to the medical malpractice fund known as Mcare if the courts decide it was inappropriately spent by the previous administration.
Altogether, that’s more than $50 billion in debt as calculated by the House Appropriations Committee. Other groups put the number much higher.
Thankfully, unlike Washington, our debt position has not yet negatively affected our state’s credit rating. We do, however, spend $1 billion every year paying down our debt.
How did we get here? Over the years, some otherwise responsible adults have come to Harrisburg and forgotten that effective budgeting works the same with tax dollars as it does with a paycheck and a home loan. To put it simply, they spent more than they had – and far too often they spent it on items of questionable benefit to the people of our state.
Sobering figures like those surrounding our state debt prove the need for continued fiscal restraint. That is why, during this year’s budget debate, many legislators (including myself) chose not to spend what many claimed was a $700 million “surplus” that could serve as the magic bullet to solve our budgetary problems.
To do so would have been like using a $100 bill as the tourniquet on a $100,000 hemorrhage, as that $700 million equals slightly more than1 percent—just 1 percent—of the state’s $50 billion debt. Even worse, if we had spent this “surplus” this year, that money might not be there next year to pay for the same thing.
Debt is something that almost all households carry, and our state must carry some too in order to address vital needs. But going under water is the dangerous tipping point, and Pennsylvania is heading in the wrong direction.
We need to work hard to make our balance sheet look better, and to reduce debt to something we can carry without risks to our fiscal position. It is the responsible thing to do, and it is what I am going to continue to work on as we move forward.
State Representative Warren Kampf
157th District, Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Contact: David Foster