by Dr. G. Terry Madonna and Dr. Michael Young
"Pennsylvania: The New California!" That jarring headline ricocheted around the nation this week courtesy of CNN, as Pennsylvania veered perilous toward an impending third month of budget stalemate. Make no mistake, the fiscal situation is serious in the Keystone State. Push is rapidly coming to shove. Nonprofits are cutting back drastically, county governments are curtailing programs or borrowing money to keep themselves running, school districts are starting to feel the pinch, and some state agencies are cutting services. And relief is nowhere yet in sight. So yes, it's bad enough.
But it's not California. Not even close. First is the obvious budget deficit comparison. California had a $24 billion deficit, balanced its budget with no tax hikes, and even made $16 billion in program cuts. Pennsylvania's deficit by comparison is a relatively paltry $3 billion or so, tax hikes are still on the table, and no one is talking about the draconian style cuts California made. Moreover, California's budget troubles stemmed from a genuine fiscal crisis. Pennsylvania's problems are more political and ideological than fiscal; more about politicians positioning themselves for next year's elections than about this year's spending.
Pennsylvania has millions of people, a rich history, is politically important, geographically complex, economically diverse, and culturally fascinating. It is, as author Neal Peirce called it, "a mega state." But far from being "the new California," Pennsylvania is more accurately characterized as the "un-California." Consider the following prominent differences between the two states.
Pennsylvania's bona fides as the un-California can be extended almost indefinitely. California's political life oozes glamour and glitz. Pennsylvania politics is mostly mundane and prosaically predictable. California is PC personified. Pennsylvania is personified by Joe six-pack and other salt-of-the-earth types.
Pennsylvania's status as the un-California is no recent phenomena. The vast political differences between the pair are rooted in Progressive Era politics of a century ago when a wave of political reform swept much of the nation. Progressives were concerned about the concentration of economic and political power and frustrated by the corruption of the day.
In particular, Progressives railed against old-style, abusive political machines. Among the major reforms were laws enabling statewide initiative, referendum, and recall. Judicial and school board elections were made non-partisan, and candidates were permitted to cross-file in more than one primary. California led the way for many progressive movements, which ultimately became deeply insinuated into the warp and woof of the state's political life.
Pennsylvania was another story. Progressives had some success in the state, but by and large the movement was weak. Most of its victories came on the occasions that Pennsylvania's ruling political bosses got careless or greedy - not infrequent events. But generally the progressive changes in Pennsylvania were surface deep. The parties were not weakened, the patronage system remained firmly in place, and the bosses controlled the elective office nomination process. Most importantly, no popular involvement in the political process was adopted, such as initiative, referendum, or recall. Nothing fundamental changed.
And that brings us back to the notion that Pennsylvania is any sort of new California. CNN and other national media exposing Pennsylvania's budget shenanigans are right to do so. It's deserved and even more, it's needed. Maybe some national attention will inspire the state's recalcitrant politicians to discharge their obligations with more responsibility. But there is still a distinction not to be missed. Pennsylvania is many things - some good, some not so good. One thing, however, it definitely is not: it's not California.
This article was adapted from an earlier article published by the authors in August 2003.
Politically Uncorrected™ is published twice monthly. Dr. G. Terry Madonna is a Professor of Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, and Dr. Michael Young is a former Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Penn State University and Managing Partner at Michael Young Strategic Research. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any institution or organization with which they are affiliated. This article may be used in whole or part only with appropriate attribution. Copyright © 2009 Terry Madonna and Michael Young.