Saving “hard-earned taxpayer money” doesn’t always

Most days, I’m just not paying attention. I wake up in the morning (before noon), discover I’m still not dead, and proceed to do what I do. Or think about things I’d like to do.

But a couple things crossed my email this week that grabbed my attention.

One of my favorite columnists wrote about the state legislature taking money the people think is for one thing, and using it for something else. For instance, our lawmakers want to take money they’re counting from the 1998 Tobacco Settlement Agreement – money intended be used for health programs – and dump it into the General Fund to hide a serious shortage in the state’s ability to pay for all the votes said lawmakers bought with promises they now don’t have the money to keep.

It’s essentially a rerun of what they pulled in 2009 and 2014 when they took money from the commonwealth’s Oil and Gas Lease Fund – money our state’s constitution guarantees will be used to protect our natural resources – and put it into the General Fund. The state supreme court recently said that was unconstitutional, so one might suppose that $400-plus million must be repaid. Good luck with that.

In 2009, when the feds gave Pennsylvania a bunch of “stimulus” money to make up for money our schools would not be getting from the recently deflated economy, we silly voters thought it would be in addition to the money we were having trouble coughing up from state coffers. Alas, our lawmakers put the federal money into the education account, and took out the money they already had budgeted. By the time the federal money ran out a couple years later, the state money had been spent on other things.

Recently, our lawmakers passed a bill reducing the state’s liability in paying pensions to its retired employees, leaving future retirees to learn to gamble their futures in the stock market.

But current taxpayers are still on the hook for the debt the pension system racked up when, four governors ago, lawmakers began “saving taxpayers money” by “borrowing” pension money to fill holes in the general fund.

But I was caught a bit by surprise when a reader wrote to explain the effect to his family of the latest proposed health insurance program – specifically, the cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. Current rules make the writer’s 23-year-old autistic son eligible for help paying for a group home so he can live under a semblance of independence (compared to living at home with Mom and Dad) while having the support of other’s like him.

Under the new plan, the cuts “save hardworking taxpayers money” by cutting, among lots of other things, money for the group home. The young man, whose parents soon will be eligible to use Medicare themselves, will continue to live at home while his parents, as long as they are able, transport him to underpaid jobs provided by employers who benefit from the lad’s ability to live on wages and work schedules that would keep an otherwise healthy high-schooler on the livingroom couch.

Most of us are too busy with our immediate lives to notice the effects of Washington’s and Harrisburg’s smoke and mirrors. It is easy to think, as we go about our daily toils knowing our lawmakers are “reducing the burden on hard-working taxpayers,” to think all is right with the world beyond our front doors. After all, my water is clean, I have no kids in school, and I certainly have no kids at home with health – mental or physical – problems.

We should be paying more attention to where the “savings” are  coming from, and who really loses when the “savings to taxpayers” are tallied. Eventually, it always turns out to be us.

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