Several years ago, when I was in the daily news game covering a school district near my home, came a discussion of the districts indebtedness and its need for a new elementary school. The district had undertaken a large number of improvements, and was about maxed out on what it could get its taxpayers to cough up.
“Never fear,” the superintendent told his Board of Directors. “According to state law, the new school won’t cost us anything.”
“With our debt load limited out, the state will pay for everything,” he said.
I stopped him after the meeting and asked how he figured the new school would not cost anything. It seemed to me the only difference was which pocket the money came from. One of my pockets had money I used to pay for the school improvements, the other had money the state would take to pay for the school. Either way, same pair of jeans.
“Most people don’t think of that,” he said.
I guess he was correct. Our town was working up its annual budget to present to its citizens at Town Meeting – the annual tradition in which New Englanders finally are able to escape their snowbound confines and gather at the town hall for a baked bean dinner, and discuss and vote upon the next year’s expenses.
A fellow from the volunteer fire department came to a selectmen’s meeting (here in Pennsylvania, we call them township supervisors) with a request. The fire department badly needed new radios. Could they be added to the budget, he asked.
“Certainly they could,” Selectman Davis told him. “But we are pretty tight right now, and it will mean raising taxes a bit.”
“Why do that,” the fellow asked.
“Where do you think we’d get the money?” Davis asked.
“The town comes up with it,” came the reply.
“And where does the town get it?”
“You put the radios on the warrant, the citizens vote for them, and the town comes up with the cash,” came the response.
“Do you pay taxes?” Davis asked
“I certainly do,” the man said with a bit of a huff at what he took as an implied accusation.
“What do you suppose happens to the money?”
“I don’t know,” the taxpayer said. “I just take it to the treasurer and she takes care of it.”
True story, and too often repeated. It came to mind as I was talking with a friend about the budget impasse in Harrisburg.
Statewide, we elected a governor who promised to get education funding back on a child-benefiting keel. It would require some additional taxes to replace money taken from schools in the aftermath of the Crash of 2008. In simple terms, the feds came up with money for education, the state legislature put that money into education and spent elsewhere the money that previously had come from state coffers. But when the federal money ran out, the state money already had been spent, and schools were on the short end.
But education is important, we thought, so we voted for Gov. Tom Wolf.
And then, because we didn’t actually want to pay for the increased funding, we voted for a group of legislators who would be sure taxes were not increased.
I suppose we thought the state would just come up with the money.