It’s bud­get busi­ness as usual in Harrisburg

Only in Penn­syl­va­nia. Yes, we have a bud­get in place, one calls for our friends in Harrisburg to spend $32 bil­lion of your hard-earned tax dol­lars. It’s been in place since the state-man­dated dead­line of July 1.

Daily Times (Primos, PA) - - OPINION -

What we don’t have is a way to pay for it.

Still, two and a half months later.

Ac­tu­ally that’s not tech­ni­cally cor­rect.

We ac­tu­ally have two of them. That’s right. There are now two fund­ing plans float­ing around the state Capi­tol.

At this point we might re­mind you that Repub­li­cans con­trol both the House and Se­nate, so why is it that they have yet to agree on a way to fund the bud­get? One word: Taxes. The Se­nate ver­sion calls for some new levies, in­clud­ing some­thing many peo­ple have been call­ing for now for years — a new sev­er­ance tax on the state’s nat­u­ral gas drillers.

But Repub­li­cans in the House, un­der the thumb of Speaker Rep. Mike Turzai, R-Al­legheny, chafe at the idea of any new taxes.

Late Wed­nes­day night they passed a fund­ing pack­age of their own and made like George H.W. Bush in the process.

Read their lips: No new taxes.

In­stead, to close the state’s $2.2 bil­lion rev­enue gap, they are call­ing for their Harrisburg pals to raid the piggy banks of sev­eral pro­grams, in­clud­ing mass tran­sit, en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment. The plan also would raid a por­tion of the state’s to­bacco set­tle­ment fund and of­fer some ex­panded gam­ing.

But even that won’t get them to the fin­ish line. Just for good mea­sure they’re also plan­ning to float a $1 bil­lion loan.

The back­ers of this pro­posal in­sist skim­ming off th­ese sur­plus funds will not harm state ser­vices. Those on the front lines – in par­tic­u­lar trans­porta­tion – are not nearly as sure. Of­fi­cials at SEPTA al­ready are warn­ing of cuts if the plan is put in place.

House Repub­li­cans do not seem to be swayed.

“We can ei­ther tax our con­stituents, or we can use the money we al­ready have,” said Rep. Paul Schemel, R-Franklin.

Con­ser­va­tive House Repub­li­cans take their cue from Turzai, who be­lieves any tax hike is some­thing akin to anath­ema. It has not es­caped notice that Turzai also con­tin­ues to toy with the no­tion of chal­leng­ing Demo­cratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

Speak­ing of the gov­er­nor, he’s not ex­actly en­am­ored with the House GOP plan, la­bel­ing it “ir­re­spon­si­ble.” More im­por­tantly, Wolf notes that the state is ca­reen­ing into se­ri­ous fis­cal jeop­ardy un­less a bud­get – and a fund­ing plan – is put in place. The gov­er­nor has in­di­cated the state would need to start mak­ing cuts as early as Fri­day if a deal to re­solve the three­month bud­get im­passe is not in place.

On Fri­day Wolf in fact an­nounced the state will de­lay more than $1.7 bil­lion in pay­ments due largely to Med­i­caid in­sur­ers and school dis­tricts.

The House fund­ing mea­sure passed – barely – by a 103-91 mar­gin, just one more vote than the nec­es­sary 102 needed to pass. It did not re­ceive a sin­gle Demo­cratic vote. The Dems were joined by a sprin­kling of 15 mod­er­ate Repub­li­cans, mostly from here in south­east­ern Penn­syl­va­nia, in­clud­ing Rep. Alex Charl­ton, R-165 of Spring­field. Cast­ing votes in fa­vor were Repub­li­can Reps. Nick Mic­carelli, R-162 of Ri­d­ley Park, Rep. Jamie San­tora, R-163 of Up­per Darby, and Rep. Steve Bar­rar, R-160 of Up­per Chich­ester.

The bill now moves to the Se­nate, which passed its plan in­clud­ing $500 mil­lion in new taxes, last July.

Among those who pushed the new sev­er­ance tax on nat­u­ral gas was Sen. Tom McGarrigle, R-26 of Spring­field. McGarrigle has not been shy about want­ing the new tax, mak­ing it part of his orig­i­nal cam­paign for of­fice, even at a time when then-Gov. Tom Cor­bett, an adamant foe of any new taxes, was sit­ting atop the GOP ticket.

“It’s crit­i­cal,” McGarrigle spokesman Mike Rader said of the sev­er­ance tax. “It’s not the en­tire so­lu­tion for the bud­get is­sue, but it is a part of it.”

Crit­i­cal also would de­scribe the state’s fis­cal straits. Trea­surer Joe Torsella and Au­di­tor Gen­eral Eu­gene DePasquale this week penned a let­ter warn­ing that $860 mil­lion in ex­pen­di­tures could be in jeop­ardy as early as Fri­day.

“Please be ad­vised that with­out ad­di­tional rev­enue, the bal­ance in the Gen­eral Fund is pro­jected to fall be­low zero this Fri­day,” the let­ter stated.

Demo­crat Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky, D-161 of Swarth­more, mocked the fund­ing mech­a­nism passed by her GOP col­leagues. She in­di­cated that Repub­li­cans went so far as to add an amend­ment that would take the state’s ex­ist­ing im­pact fee on nat­u­ral gas and change the name to a sev­er­ance tax.

Both Wolf and Democrats are warn­ing that a down­grade to the state’s al­ready shake credit rat­ing looms in the near fu­ture. Stan­dard & Poor’s al­ready has the state on a neg­a­tive credit watch.

If passed, at best the House GOP plan would serve as a Band-Aid, clos­ing this year’s gap­ing bud­get wound, but fail­ing to re­solve the state’s on­go­ing bud­get dilemma.

As usual, many in Harrisburg see the Repub­li­can House plan as merely a start­ing point.

In the mean­time, the clock is tick­ing.

In other words, it’s busi­ness as usual in the state Capi­tol.

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