Region’s reps. buck trends in state budget
Lawmakers in Harrisburg barely beat the June deadline by passing a new fiscal plan.
There are a lot of fingers being pointed these days in Harrisburg.
That’s what happens when you approve a $32 billion spending plan and then spend the next three months trying to figure out how to fund it. You read that right. Our esteemed Legislature barely beat the deadline at the end of June by passing a new fiscal plan.
Since then we’ve been treated to dysfunction – which is another way of saying business as usual in Harrisburg – as legislators have tied themselves in knots trying to figure out how to pay for it.
Keep in mind that, as with everything that happens in the state capital, this exercise is drenched in politics. Every state representative as well as the governor will be up for re-election in 2018.
First up in the batter’s box was the state Senate. These folks do not have to run for reelection every two years. So maybe they were a little more amenable to considering some menial tax increases to fund the budget.
Their plan raised a few taxes on utilities and phone bills. More importantly, it did something many in Harrisburg, including Gov. Tom Wolf, have been clamoring for now for years. They put their weight behind the state’s first severance tax on the natural gas industry. Wolf said he would support the Senate plan.
Then they waited for the House to take action. And they waited. And they waited. We’re still waiting.
The House, led by conservative firebrand Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, believes any tax hike is anathema.
They took one look at the Senate plan, realized they were going to be saddled with having their members seeking reelection on the backs of tax hikes, and gave the plan a quick thumb’s down.
That was months ago. In the meantime, they have offered up several plans to both plug the current spending gap, most of which involved borrowing lots of money.
They have tinkered with the idea of hitting up the state’s tobacco settlement fund, and of course considered adding more legal gaming in the state, as well as selling off the state’s lucrative booze business.
Wolf panned the borrowing idea in part because it doesn’t them involve recurring revenue he believes is needed to offer a more permanent fix to the state’s fiscal woes.
So the two sides continue to snipe and point fingers at each other.
One place fingers should not be pointed at is the southeast state House delegation, in particular the Republican members.
Perhaps emboldened by the work of Sen. Tom McGarrigle, R-26, of Delaware County, in getting the Senate to stand behind a severance tax, members from the southeast Republican House caucus decided to try the same.
They did this at some peril, knowing it was a direct challenge to party leadership. Turzai made it clear he wanted no part of a new severance tax on natural gas drillers. And, being one of the state’s foremost proponents of getting the state out of the booze business, he probably was not all that enamored at the thought of dipping into the LCB’s profits, as suggested by Gov. Wolf, in the process validating it as a solid, recurring revenue stream for the state.
So the southeast delegation tried an end-around, pushing a vote to get the shale tax out of committee and onto the House floor where the entire body could vote on it one way or the other.
Didn’t happen. The vote failed. The shale tax remains bottled up in committee.
The strain of what is now an impasse in its fourth month is pretty clear in the words of Rep. Nick Miccarelli, R-162nd Dist.
“I would like to see members of the House and Senate Appropriations committees get in a room, lock the door behind us and nobody leaves until we put a budget on the governor’s desk,” the Republican flatly stated. He’d be in that room. Miccarelli is a member of the House Appropriations Committee.
For his part, Gov. Wolf last week gave notice that he is tired of playing games with Republicans and moved to “patch” the current budget gap by tapping into the LCB money.
Talks continue for a permanent solution.
A severance tax still might be in the works. And if it happens, it’s likely southeast Pa. Republicans will supply crucial votes.