Ash Wednesday in Pennsylvania: Ashes for the people; gold for the corporations

You remember what Ash Wednesday means in the Roman Catholic creed: it is the day the faithful begin a 40-day penance, called Lent, in preparation for the Resurrection of Christ on Easter. Did you think this custom was only prescribed in religious circles? Nah. It’s alive and well right here in the (nominally?) secular circles of Republican-governed Pennsylvania, where “mean and lean” means tightening the belt not for corporations—god forbid—but for ordinary working folks like you and me. The free-market fundamentalists have arrived to preach sacrifice for us and profit feasts for their sponsors.

On Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), former State Attorney General Tom Corbett, newly-elected Republican governor, revealed the hitherto closely guarded secret of his carnivalesque budget proposal (at $27.3 billion, 3 percent down from current budget), piously inviting Pennsylvanians to “share the sacrifice” by undertaking the following social-services diet menu:

1. K-12 education funding, cut by $550 million to be paid for by a one-year salary freeze for all public school employees, amounting to a “saving” of $400 million (local property taxes will have to be raised to “save” some more); pre-school funding cut by $2.4 million (let the tots fend for themselves while both or mostly single parents work at two or three underpaid jobs; never too early to learn that essential American virtue, self-reliance); accountability grants amounting to $259.5 million, cut. Yet, according to a recent (February 24–27) New York Times/CBS News poll, 56 percent of respondents opposed cutting the benefits or wages of public employees to reduce deficits, and 61 percent said their benefits or wages were “about right” or “too low.” So much for public opinion: drop dead, say the elected officials after securing the suckers’ votes.

2. Higher Education (that’s me), cut by $ 650 million across the 18 state-funded colleges and universities—about 50 percent of current state funding, the most drastic higher education budget cut in the nation so far. This means retrenchment, rise in tuition (estimated from a 28 percent to 34 percent increase above present cost), and elimination of whole colleges—we don’t know. We are still in shock.

3. State jobs, cut by 1,500 public workers, the majority from the Department of Public Welfare (1,200), severely so from its mental-health sector. Pennsylvania public workers are the nineteenth lowest paid public workers in a survey of 20 states. According to the US Census figures, Arizona boasts the lowest salaries, followed by Pennsylvania, both around roughly $49,000 per year; California’s figure is around $65,000, the highest. Unfortunately for the budget slashers, Pennsylvania boasts the fourth strongest unionized workforce in the nation. That must really get their goat! So far, Corbett is not set to imitate Governor Walker’s attack on public-sector collective bargaining rights, but it’s early days yet.

The contract for 6,000 state-university teachers (me again) across the 14 state universities expires on June 30. We are represented by APSCUF, a strong union. We are bracing ourselves for the attack. So are our students and their parents.

4. Economic and Community Development, budget slashed by 32 percent. Let industrial decay, neglect, and social alienation swallow the bums’ communities. Let them join the army, if they want jobs—not that they’ll be paid quite as well as the private military contractors do (think Blackwater). Still, the cost of keeping one non-privatized soldier in Afghanistan for the tax payer is $ 1 million per year. Priorities, priorities!

5. Environmental protection, funding decreased by $7 million even though the Environmental Protection Agency has issued requests for tightening the monitoring of natural gas drilling by industries in Pennsylvania; on the contrary, Corbett proposes to grant oil and gas drilling rights on state forestland, allegedly to raise $65 million to keep state parks open (to whom?)

Exempt from the general diet are . . . you guessed it: the usual suspects:

1. Business taxes, cut. Corbett proposes continuing phasing out the Capital Stock and Franchise Tax, the state’s business asset tax to be eliminated in 2014, handing over immediately a $70 million tax “relief” to business interests. Other tax credits and benefits include: $171.1 million business tax-credit package; $25 million in grant funds for “job creation” (don’t hold your breath: if that amount creates 200 jobs, I’ll eat my hat!). Wouldn’t you rather be a corporation or a business than a person? They get all the handouts; we get pain and sacrifice. They get socialism; we get . . .

2. Prisons: increase spending by $186 million. Right. It’s better to spend money on prisoners than on students, for, after all, that is where some of our youth will end up if we take away their futures by depriving them of an education. Good thinking, governor. Be proactive, that’s the ticket.

3. No fees or levies to drillers of natural gas extracted from the Marcellus Shale, which covers most of Pennsylvania. In fact, Corbett plans to lease state forestlands for drilling at no fees, which, if applied, could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues (not that I recommend drilling; just exposing the hypocrisy). That’s “sharing the sacrifice,” right? You bet. Sticks out a mile. Corbett, after all, campaigned on a promise to raise no taxes: “We must tax no more, because the people have no more to give,” Corbett condescendingly sermonized. No, the people don’t, but you know who does? Corbett’s buddies in the natural gas industry; he represents them. And do you know about mass gas fracking? It has the potential to contaminate our water supplies. See “Gasland,” the Oscar-winning documentary about a man who represents the natural gas industry and . . .

But I digress. So there you have it: balancing the budget by squeezing the public economy until it screams. That’s “shock therapy,” or the socially apocalyptic agenda for which economic crises provides opportunities to loot the public sphere and centralize corporate power. Welcome to disaster capitalism. They first tested it in Chile, around 1976. It migrated all over the world—Argentina, Egypt, East Asia, Central America, Iraq, you name it, devastating the people and their economies—and now it has come home to roost. Welcome to the Third World, America.

What are we going to do about it? Go on to “liberate” Libya and forget about the mess at home? Shouldn’t there be a “resurrection” in this story? Like democracy, maybe?

Professor Luciana Bohne teaches at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. She welcomes comments at lbohne@edinboro.edu.

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