Barrar: 2011 budget choices could lead to unhappy voters

Eight-term state rep. says spending cuts may not prove popular as lawmakers seek to close $5B gap

By Mike McGann, Editor,
Ask a public official, virtually any public official, and almost all will tell you the same thing: 2011 is going to be a challenging year. But few others are looking at the difficult mix of problems and expectations that accompany local members of the state legislature — a little more than a week before a new governor takes office and Pennsylvania must grapple with as much as a $5 billion deficit.

Steve Barrar (R-160), now in his eighth term in the house and the state representative for Chadds Ford, Birmingham and Pocopson in the Unionville area, says he feels it very acutely. With his party, Republican, taking control of the state house and inaugurating Tom Corbett as the new governor on Jan. 18, Barrar said he’s aware that people have an expectation that things will get done in Harrisburg, and done quickly.

State Rep. Steve Barrar (R-160)

“It certainly puts all the pressure on the Republicans,” he said in a lengthy interview last week. “I think people feel that there’s no reason for us not to get our agenda done. People expect us to get our house in order.”

Two issues will be front and center: solving the budget deficit and creating jobs, Barrar said, tricky even if all branches of the state government are working in true lockstep, as opposed to the contentious battles of split government for the past eight years. While the Republicans do have a majority, both in the house and state senate, as well as an incoming governor, there’s not always going to be complete agreement on how to proceed.

With Corbett’s declared position of not raising taxes, Barrar allowed that the incoming governor could be putting legislators in a difficult bind, forcing enough unpopular cuts in state spending, that there could virtually be something for everyone in terms of being angry with he and his colleagues.

“I don’t know how you come up with $5 billion in cuts,” he said. “The new governor may be asking us to make decisions that could cost many of us in the legislature our jobs.”

That having been said, cuts are coming, although Barrar said he held out some hope that the steadily improving economy — the commonwealth collected some $191.2 million more in taxes in December, 2010 than was forecast — might reduce some of the deficit.

Bottom line, though, he said all state spending is going to have to come under a microscope. Citing as much as $1 billion in waste, billing errors and fraud alleged by Auditor General Jack Wagner in the state’s welfare program, Barrar noted — as have many others in the legislature — that may be the first target for savings. Of course, whether Wagner’s figures are correct or not have been a matter of dispute between his office and outgoing Gov. Ed Rendell. Either way, Barrar said, the state’s Welfare and Medicaid programs are going to get close scrutiny, as every dollar of waste and fraud found there is a dollar than won’t need to be cut from other programs.

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