FILE - PA Andrew Lewis 5-8-2019

Pennsylvania state Rep. Andrew Lewis talks May 8, 2019, about his legislation to reduce state debt.

With little fanfare and not much debate, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed a pair of bills designed to rein in the growth of the state’s debt.

One piece of legislation sailed through with unanimous support, while the other was a close vote largely along partisan lines, but both are now headed to the Senate for consideration.

House Bill 24 from Rep. John Lawrence, R-West Grove, is a second attempt at a bill that passed both the House and the Senate last session but was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. Put simply, it would put an end to the practice of scheduling low near-term payments when new debt is issued and having the later years’ payments balloon as a result.

In explaining the bill on the floor of the House, Lawrence indicated that he’d worked with the minority chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Matthew Bradford, D-Norristown, to make alterations to the legislation so that it would be palatable to the Wolf administration.

“In speaking with the good gentleman from Montgomery, the minority appropriations chair, he proposed extending the effective date of this legislation to allow the administration more time to plan for its implementation,” Lawrence said. “I sincerely appreciate the good gentleman's suggestion and his amendment in the Appropriations Committee, which passed unanimously.”

Lawrence, in his remarks and co-sponsorship memo, explained that by having all the debt payments be equal for the life of any given borrowing by the state, the principal will be paid off more quickly and the state will be on the hook for a smaller amount of interest payments.

“If this practice were in place today, it would have saved the Pennsylvania taxpayer nearly $1 billion in interest costs over the years,” Lawrence said.

While HB24 sailed through on a unanimous vote, Rep. Andrew Lewis’s House Bill 880 didn’t manage to attract the same bipartisan support. The Harrisburg Republican’s legislation would redouble an effort to lower the debt ceiling for economic development projects under the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program. The ceiling peaked at $4.05 billion in 2010 and has been dropping in $50 million increments each year since 2013. The prior effort to shrink the debt limit is set to conclude in 2021 when the debt limit reaches $3.15 billion.

HB880 would trim $100 million a year starting in 2022 and conclude in 2026 with a debt ceiling of $2.65 billion.

In a news release, Lewis noted that the Wolf administration is spending about $1.12 billion this year to service debt, a number estimated to jump to $1.18 billion next year.

“This level of debt is simply not sustainable,” Lewis said in the news release. “Less borrowing leads to less debt which leads to less spending on debt and more funding available to support the core functions of our government, such as public education, health and safety.”

The Lewis bill narrowly passed on a vote of 104-92.

House Speaker Mike Turzai praised both pieces of legislation in a news release.

“House Bill 24 … will reduce the debt we pass on to future generations and reduce the amount of tax dollars spent on interest payments servicing that debt,” Turzai said.

 

Managing Editor

Delphine Luneau is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years of experience. She was the editor of Suburban Life Media when its flagship was named best weekly in Illinois, and she has worked at papers in South Carolina, Indiana, Idaho and New York.