Disorder in the House: Pa.’s budget blues
Here’s a little twist on that old summer homework standby, “What I did on my summer vacation.”
Only this time, we’re not directing this at students.
Instead, we’d like to hear from our duly elected state representatives.
That’s our way of wondering what exactly House Speaker Mike Turzai and his compatriots have been doing the past few weeks.
Back in the last week of July, the state Senate finally got around to signing off on a revenue package to fund the $32 billion budget package agreed to when the Legislature barely beat the mandated July 1 deadline to have a spending plan in place.
Remember, this is Harrisburg. This is not like running the books in your household, or even at work. Deadlines don’t mean all that much in the state Capitol. And you can pass a $32 billion budget when you only have $30 billion in revenue, the math be damned.
If you’re Gov. Tom Wolf, and you see a re-election campaign looming in the near future, you don’t bother to actually affix your signature to the spending plan, which does not exactly cater to your wishes. Instead you let it become law without your imprimatur.
That doesn’t change the math. It still doesn’t add up.
At least the Senate stepped up to the plate. It put together a revenue plan that almost everyone is guaranteed to complain about. That’s because everyone is going to pay more. Led by state Sen. Tom McGarrigle, R-26 of Springfield, they even managed to do something many have been clamoring for now for years, enacting a severance tax on the state Marcellus Shale drillers. No, it wasn’t the 4 or 5 percent that Wolf, other Dems, and even some Republicans had sought. It’s a lot less, and will generate a lot less revenue, in the neighborhood of $100 million.
The plan also will cost consumers more in the form of higher taxes on home gas heating and electric bills, as well as increased taxes on phone and cell phone services.
Even with all that, the vast amount of money needed to close the state’s perennial budget gap will come from borrowing a huge chunk of money from the state’s tobacco settlement fund.
The plan barely passed the Senate, getting the green light via a razor-thin 26-24 margin. Wolf indicated he supported the plan.
It then went to the House. Which means it went nowhere. The House has not touched it.
That is in large part because Turzai, who may or may not have his eyes on a run against Wolf for governor, as well as many Republicans who control the House just as they do the Senate, are loathe to any tax hikes.
It’s why they laughed themselves silly at Wolf’s first two budgets, which had the temerity to call for broad-based increases in both the state personal income and state sales taxes, as well as a healthy dollop in the form of a severance tax on gas drilling.
It appears Turzai is in no rush to bring his fellow representatives back from summer vacation until the end of the month to take up such minor annoyances such as the budget dilemma.
In the meantime, state Treasurer Joe Torsella has extended a $750 million line of credit to keep the state’s nose above the rising sea of red ink. And credit bureaus are taking a decidedly dim view of the state’s increasingly frazzled fiscal situation.
Early indications are that the Senate plan does not have much in the way of support. That’s certainly the case for Turzai. The Allegheny Republican considers new taxes or tax hikes anathema.
He prefers an expansion of legalized gaming in the state, as well as his favorite, getting the state out of the booze business and selling off lucrative licenses to private enterprise. Neither position is going to happen overnight, which means the state trudges inexorably toward the fiscal cliff.
In the meantime, back in reality, state universities are beginning to wonder about their funding, and the state’s credit rating remains a dumpster fire.
We hope Turzai and his pals are enjoying their vacation. Especially seeing how they continue to be paid while the state’s business remains unfinished.
We can’t wait to read their essay in the fall.
You know, the one titled, “What I did on my summer vacation.”