Sometimes, it's tons of fun being surprised in the news business.
Other times, you've just got to shake your head and mutter to yourself.
On Friday, we held a live chat with Nathan Benefield, vice president for policy analysis with the Commonwealth Foundation, and Sharon Ward, executive director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, on Gov. Tom Corbett's 2014-15 budget proposal. Nate and Sharon did an outstanding job (Sharon even worked through a computer-crashing crisis all on her own to rejoin the chat), and we were pleased they agreed to join us.
Staff reporter Jason Scott and I were ready for some heated discussion on business budget topics. After all, this is an election year, and Corbett's said publicly he's in the game.
Were we prepared to talk pension reform? Yes, we were. (Well, Jason is always ready to talk pension reform). Were we prepared to talk about education funding? Yes. Were we prepared for questions about infrastructure and transportation, given the state of PA's roads and bridges? You bet. Were we ready to talk natural-gas drilling, the Marcellus Shale and impact fees? Absolutely.
And OK, we hit on some of those.
But what drew the most comments and the longest tit-for-tat discussion was a question submitted about mass transit (see the comment at 10:55 in the live chat below). Specifically, the question was about why the rest of Pennsylvania helps fund mass transit in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
I know that's a topic many people like to kvetch about. In my book, it's the equivalent of talking about the weather at a networking event. The discussion usually goes like this: "Isn't it stupid we help pay for other people to get to work and the grocery store?" "Yes, it is." "No, it isn't; you help pay for everybody's kids to go to school, etc., so why is this any different?"
But let's go back to that list of topics Jason and I were expecting: Pension reform. Education funding. Infrastructure and transportation. Natural-gas drilling.
All of these have monetary ties to your business in some way. But they're complicated, full of nuance, and not as easy for us to talk about and feel as though we're speaking with any degree of expertise.
Here's my hope: That when the state legislature returns to session, its members don't do the same thing and duck the tough stuff. Because each of those four areas — and more — deserves serious debate and, when possible, bipartisan support for clear, detailed resolutions that provide long-term solutions.