Bud­get wars: A new hope in the air

Times Chronicle & Public Spirit - - OPINION - Low­man S. Henry Colum­nist Low­man Henry Low­man S. Henry is Chair­man & CEO of the Lin­coln In­sti­tute.

It is June and for most Penn­syl­va­ni­ans that means the start of the summer va­ca­tion sea­son. But un­der the Capi­tol dome in Har­ris­burg it is the one month of the year when the gov­er­nor and law­mak­ers get se­ri­ous about craft­ing a new state bud­get.

The state’s fis­cal year runs from July 1st to June 30th and it is the pri­mary con­sti­tu­tional re­spon­si­bil­ity of the gov­er­nor and the leg­is­la­ture to have a new bud­get in place when the sun rises over Penn’s Woods on the first morn­ing of July.

That has never hap­pened dur­ing Gov. Tom Wolf’s ten­ure.

Three years ago he presided over the long­est bud­get stale­mate in state his­tory. That would be hard to top, but last year the Gen­eral Assem­bly passed a spend­ing plan, but not a rev­enue plan.

Two fac­tors drive the an­nual bud­get drama: state gov­ern­ment spends be­yond it means; and vot­ers have si­mul­ta­ne­ously elected, to quote the Huff­in­g­ton Post, “the most lib­eral gov­er­nor in Amer­ica,” and one of the most con­ser­va­tive leg­is­la­tures in modern state his­tory.

Gov. Wolf trig­gered the bud­get cri­sis his first year in of­fice by propos­ing tax in­creases greater than the sum to­tal of tax hikes pro­posed by the governors of all 49 other states. Repub­li­cans — bask­ing in his­toric ma­jori­ties — dug in and suc­cess­ful fought off most of the gov­er­nor’s pro­posed tax hikes.

Wolf is noth­ing if not per­sis­tent. Each year, in­clud­ing this year, he pro­poses more and more taxes in­clud­ing a sev­er­ance tax on Mar­cel­lus shale drillers. House Repub­li­cans have stood strong against the gov­er­nor’s spend-taxspend more agenda, but of­ten have had to de­fend their flank against Se­nate Repub­li­can lead­er­ship which tends to cave in to sig­nif­i­cant parts of the gov­er­nor’s agenda.

At the heart of the po­lit­i­cal dis­agree­ment is the path each has taken to their cur­rent of­fices. Gov. Wolf is work­ing to de­liver to those in his party ad­dicted to gov­ern­ment spend­ing. Repub­li­cans mean­while run on a plat­form call­ing for fis­cal re­straint and lower taxes.

Then there is the prob­lem of state gov­ern­ment spend­ing be­yond our means. Hun­dreds of millions of dol­lars are added each year to the pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion bud­get with no cor­re­spond­ing de­mand for im­proved per­for­mance. The gov­er­nor ve­toes even mod­est ef­forts to re­form an ex­po­nen­tially grow­ing wel­fare sys­tem. And none of this ad­dresses a pub­lic pen­sion sys­tem that is over $60 bil­lion un­der­funded.

All of this leaves pre­cious few re­sources for deal­ing with se­ri­ous prob­lems like con­fronting the opi­oid cri­sis and pro­vid­ing the money needed to harden se­cu­rity at school build­ings across the state.

Add into this bub­bling caul­dron of over­spend­ing and com­pet­ing po­lit­i­cal dy­nam­ics gu­ber­na­to­rial and leg­isla­tive elec­tions and you might ex­pect yet another missed bud­get dead­line this year.

Oddly enough this just might be the year when the job gets done on time.

Yes, Gov. Wolf has again pro­posed big spend­ing in­creases. Yes, he once more is call­ing for a puni­tive sev­er­ance tax. And, yes, even Repub­li­cans have some new spend­ing they would like to put into the bud­get.

Whereas in the past pro­posed spend­ing has ex­ceeded project in­come by bil­lions this year the gap is a few hun­dred mil­lion.

The ex­act num­ber fluc­tu­ates and has been im­pacted by a re­cent court de­ci­sion, but the com­bat­ants start out closer to­gether than in past years.

Fed­eral tax cuts and the boom­ing econ­omy have re­sulted in a rev­enue sur­plus in the cur­rent fis­cal year mean­ing bud­get-mak­ers will not have to back­fill a deficit and will have more money to work with in the 2018-2019 fis­cal year.

While some­times a bud­get stale­mate is po­lit­i­cally help­ful in that politi­cians can go back to their con­stituents and claim they are “fight­ing for them” in Har­ris­burg, the pain caused by the bud­get bat­tles of the past three years has most in­volved in the process want­ing to get the job done on time with as lit­tle fuss as pos­si­ble.

Both sides are hop­ing for an ad­van­tage by putting off the big bat­tles un­til next year. Repub­li­cans see Scott Wag­ner in the gov­er­nor’s of­fice, and Democrats pine for a re­newed man­date for Tom Wolf.

Ei­ther way, it ap­pears like Penn­syl­va­ni­ans will be spared Episode IV of Bud­get Wars.

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