State bud­get fol­lies set to re­sume

Northern Berks Patriot Item - - OPINION - Low­man S. Henry Colum­nist

The last time a Penn­syl­va­nia gover­nor signed a state bud­get into law was nearly four years ago on July 10, 2014. Gov. Tom Cor­bett signed off on the state’s fis­cal plan just days af­ter it was ap­proved by the state leg­is­la­ture com­plet­ing a four year run of on-time state bud­gets.

Near­ing the end of his four year term Gov. Tom Wolf has yet to ex­pe­ri­ence the of­fi­cial sign­ing of a state bud­get. And res­i­dents of Penn’s Woods have not had the lux­ury of an on-time state bud­get since Cor­bett put pen to paper. In­stead, bud­get bat­tles have con­sumed state gov­ern­ment end­ing with bud­gets be­com­ing law without the gover­nor’s sig­na­ture.

It should be noted gov­er­nors have three op­tions af­ter leg­is­la­tion is passed by the Gen­eral Assem­bly. The gover­nor can veto the bill, killing it un­less his veto is over-rid­den by a twothirds ma­jor­ity in both cham­bers; sign the bill into law; or take no ac­tion al­low­ing the bill to be­come law af­ter the pas­sage of ten days.

The lat­ter is how Gov. Wolf has cho­sen to re­spond to all three bud­gets passed dur­ing his ten­ure. Wolf has be­haved like the col­lege pro­fes­sor he once was, an­noyed at the as­sign­ment turned in for grad­ing.

Di­vided gov­ern­ment is at the root of Penn­syl­va­nia’s on­go­ing bud­get drama. In 2014 Wolf ac­com­plished an his­toric first by de­feat­ing an in­cum­bent gover­nor seek­ing re-elec­tion. But, while vot­ers were busy dis­pens­ing with Tom Cor­bett they also elected near-record Repub­li­can ma­jori­ties to both the state Se­nate and state House. Repub­li­cans added sig­nif­i­cantly to their num­bers again in 2016.

Due to the na­ture of the 2014 Demo­cratic pri­mary, Wolf moved to the far Left to out­ma­neu­ver his op­po­nents, then pro­ceeded to at­tempt to gov­ern in that fash­ion. Mean­while, the Repub­li­can cau­cuses in the Gen­eral Assem­bly have grown sig­nif­i­cantly more con­ser­va­tive as the GOP made gains in con­ser­va­tive-lean­ing western Penn­syl­va­nia while los­ing seats in the more mod­er­ate Philadel­phia suburbs.

All of this set the stage for the bud­get im­passes to come. Gov. Wolf played a ma­jor role in cre­at­ing grid­lock by propos­ing that his very first bud­get in­crease taxes by an amount greater than the com­bined to­tal of pro­posed tax hikes in all 49 other states com­bined. Repub­li­cans re­coiled at the prospect and thus en­sued the long­est bud­get stale­mate in state his­tory.

In 2016, worn out by the ex­tended fight­ing over the 2015 bud­get, Repub­li­cans caved into many of the gover­nor’s spend­ing de­mands, but not enough to merit his gold star of ap­proval. The bud­get wars re­sumed again last year, re­sult­ing in the unusual pas­sage of a spend­ing plan in July, but no rev­enue plan was adopted to com­plete the bud­get un­til Oc­to­ber.

And now it is time to start all over again. Against the back­drop of a gu­ber­na­to­rial elec­tion year with Repub­li­cans gun­ning to make Tom Wolf the sec­ond one-term gover­nor in a row, the bud­get process is now un­der­way.

There are, of course, po­lit­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions. The gover­nor will again push for the Holy Grail of a sev­er­ance tax on nat­u­ral gas drillers sought by Democrats and apos­tate Repub­li­cans. But leg­isla­tive Repub­li­cans, who saw their num­bers in­crease when they stood firm against the gover­nor’s tax and spend agenda, will want to ap­peal to their base by again keep­ing the gover­nor in check.

The first clue as to how pitched the bat­tle might be will come early next month when Gov. Wolf de­liv­ers his bud­get ad­dress to a joint ses­sion of the Gen­eral Assem­bly. The ques­tion is: which Wolf will show up? The Tom Wolf of 2015 who de­manded record in­creases in taxes and spend­ing; the lec­tur­ing Tom Wolf of 2016 who scolded the leg­is­la­ture for not giv­ing him his way; or the more sub­dued Tom Wolf of 2017 — still de­ter­mined, but not as ag­gres­sive?

Then as the process con­tin­ues with leg­isla­tive hear­ings and in­ter­est groups weigh­ing in to se­cure their part of the pub­lic wealth the po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns will un­fold putting on ad­di­tional pres­sure. Un­like 2016, when the pres­i­den­tial race dom­i­nated pub­lic at­ten­tion, 2018’s gu­ber­na­to­rial race will put the state bud­get in the spot­light.

It will be in­ter­est­ing to see whether or not Gov. Wolf gets to ex­pe­ri­ence the thrill of sign­ing a bud­get, or whether he goes down in state his­tory as the first gover­nor never to sign one.

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