A third of the fiscal year is over, and we still have no state budget. Every day there is a new report of a school district that is worried about how to stay open. And social service providers, who take care of the most vulnerable members of our community are searching for the funds necessary to keep helping the infirm, the aged and the challenged.
It’s critically important that we understand why the budget is delayed and who is responsible. And the truth is that in Harrisburg, no less than in Washington, D.C., some Republicans are willing to hold government hostage in order to nullify the results of the last election and implement their own agenda.
It’s hard to see that if, like most people, you don’t follow the ins and outs of Harrisburg politics. And it’s even harder if the conventions of journalism — which focus on process rather than policy and give us he-said/she-said versions of the conflict — make it no easier to understand the real basis of the dispute.
Even though the 2014 election saw Republicans win nationwide, Pennsylvanians, for the first time in our history, defeated an incumbent governor running for re-election. We were tired of a governor who made drastic cuts in elementary, secondary, and college education. We demanded a governor who would make the natural gas drillers pay fair severance taxes, as is done in every other shale gas state.
Tom Wolf was elected with a mandate to reverse direction on these issues. But the Republican political wave and gerrymandered electoral districts gave him a General Assembly controlled by the Republicans.
So now Gov. Wolf and a Republican Party controlled by some combination of extremists and political opportunists are at loggerheads. And some of thecommentators say that both sides are to blame and haven’t reached a compromise because of Wolf’s inexperience.
If you look at the substance of the dispute, however, it is clear that neither claim is plausible.
No interest in working across the aisle
The issue at hand is not just whether the Democrats and Republicans will meet halfway on raising the personal income tax and sales tax and instituting a severance tax in order to roll back the Corbett cuts to education and health and human services.
The truth is that the Republicans are, in effect, demanding that the governor give up on any broad-based taxes and increased spending on education and health and human services. And, further, their proposals lead to further cuts in both areas.
The budgets enacted in the last few years have not really been balanced. They relied on gimmicks, such as pushing expenses from one year to the next. That’s why the commonwealth’s credit rating has been downgraded again and again.
The budget that the Republicans passed this year, and which Wolf vetoed, does little to restore Corbett’s cuts to education and are also filled with budgetary sleight of hand.
In July 2016, the bill for three years of budgetary shenanigans comes due. We will face a $2 billion structural deficit that can only be closed with new taxes or another billion-dollar cut to education and health and human services each. The governor has already modified his income and shale tax proposals to move closer to the Republicans. The Republicans insist on enacting another Corbett budget.
Nor are the Republicans meeting the governor halfway when they hint that they will accept higher taxes if the he agrees to their proposals on pension reform and state liquor store privatization. Their proposals on pensions and liquor control not only save the state no money, together they create a deeper hole in the budget that can only be filled by more taxes or budget cuts. And they undermine the public sector workers whose spending helps drive our economy and whose wages and benefits help set a floor under wages in the private sector.
Yet, here too, Gov. Wolf has taken steps in their directions, with a hybrid pension proposal similar to the one Republicans advanced last year and a proposal to turn management of state stores over to the private sector.
Led by Senators Corman and Wagner, the Republican are rejecting the compromise that makes government work. They demand that Wolf give up his priorities and seek to embarrass him politically by further delay. Meanwhile, the many Republicans who have already called for a severance tax and more funding for education sit on the sidelines.
So, this is not a time to blame both sides. Nor is a naïve governor making political errors. Gov. Wolf is, rightly, unwilling to give in to those who would rather see government fail than seek compromise. He’s demanding that the General Assembly meet him at least halfway.
We should echo that demand.