Can Nonprofits Do More to End Budget Stalemates in the States?

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December 21, 2015; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

NPQ has long been following the budget standoff in Pennsylvania and Illinois, as some nonprofits have come to six months without a contract payment, which is simply unacceptable.

In Pennsylvania, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

A sense of optimism that state officials could finally produce a budget had dissolved Saturday, when House Democrats and numerous Republicans joined forces to topple a pension bill that was part of an agreement among legislators and the administration. Senate Republicans said they would not raise taxes, as the budget supported by Mr. Wolf would require, without the reduction in the pension guaranteed to future state and school workers.

The distance still to travel to find a solution to the almost six-month-long standoff was illustrated by the 149-52 vote, with all Democrats and more than half of the Republicans opposing the bill. The York Daily Herald captured how the proposal was seen from both sides of the aisle.

Rep. John McGinnis (R-Blair) argued on the floor that the proposal would have actually increased the state’s pension debt and that the Legislature should instead look to completely end the defined-benefit, traditional pension. […] State Rep. Kevin Schreiber (D-York) said, it was “never negotiated” that Democrats were putting up votes. And the Republicans, with 119 members, had enough to pass it on their own.

Unfortunately, this is more than just an academic debate between political scientists and economists over the best way to solve the issues on the table. The lack of a budget has real impact on real people.

A coalition of 30 nonprofits led by the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership called on the governor and the general assembly to pass a full-year budget, not a stopgap.

“A ‘stopgap’ or ‘rescue budget’ neither ends nor rescues, and is effectively no real budget at all,” the letter stated. “Pennsylvanians have waited six months—half the year—for a budget providing a clear direction from their elected leaders. In the meantime, citizens and organizations have been effectively paralyzed in their planning for the future while struggling each day to provide basic services to the communities they have been called to serve. As of today, your indecision has forced organizations to cut positions and services or limit their expansion of offerings for the people of the state.”

The Morning Call recapped many of the real impacts of the impasse: hundreds of employees at nearly 300 organizations having their hours and paychecks reduced or eliminated, school districts borrowing millions of dollars, early childhood centers closed, shelters for victims of domestic violence shutting their doors to new arrivals, students lacking money for transportation and housing, and food banks without the funds to help those in need.

Bertrand Russell once observed, “Real life is, to most men, a long second-best, a perpetual compromise between the ideal and the possible.” In Pennsylvania, Illinois (which also still does not have a state budget), and Washington, real life, that place between the ideological positions of left and right where we can find solutions to the problems faced by real people, remains beyond the grasp of our political leaders. What can and must nonprofits do differently to prevent these kind of destructive stalemates?—Martin Levine