Elections have consequences and elected officials are usually — willingly or unwillingly — the first to respond to changed political circumstances. The election last November of a veto proof majority in the Pennsylvania Senate and an enhanced majority in the House created a new reality in Harrisburg. While the shift in terms of numbers was not great, the impact on public policy over the next two years will be profound.
The first to come to terms with this new reality was Governor Tom Wolf. The governor's initial budget address was bold and breathtaking in the sheer size of proposed spending and the tax hikes needed to pay for it. A later analysis found that Wolf proposed tax hikes greater than those sought by governors in all 49 other states combined. The Huffington Post promptly declared him to be the most liberal governor in America.
That as we now know triggered the longest budget stalemate in state history. Republicans won the stand-off, but caved into part of his tax and spend agenda the following year. But now, legislative Republicans are even larger in number and with nervous Democrats in marginal districts distraught over the thoughts of another budget battle the governor finds himself in a diminished position.
Governor Wolf seemed to immediately grasp the situation and announced that he would seek no broad-based tax hikes in the budget he will propose next month. By that he means no increase in either the Personal Income Tax (PIT) or the state sales tax. The current state budget attempted to fund what some perceive as a structural budget deficit by including a number of small tax hikes. Much of that revenue has not been realized adding to Pennsylvania's fiscal woes.
So how will the next fiscal year's budget be balanced? Look for Governor Wolf to again chase the Left's Holy Grail — a severance tax on natural gas drillers. The governor is also to likely propose a virtual smorgasbord of targeted tax hikes. He also has a trick up his sleeve. Having bowed to the GOP's anti-tax position look for him to toss the ball back into the lap of legislators and tell them to come up with either the spending cuts or tax hikes needed to balance the budget.
Another who understands the changed political landscape and knows how to use it is State Representative Jerry Knowles (R-Schuylkill). Democrats are adept at using legislative power to affect policy. Taking a page from their playbook Knowles is set to introduce legislation that would withhold state funding from any college or university that declares itself to be a "sanctuary campus."
A "sanctuary campus" is one that harbors students who immigrated into this country illegally. The Left, aware that President Trump is about to crack down on illegal immigration, is pushing for safe havens by having schools, cities and other jurisdictions openly declare their intent to not enforce federal law or cooperate with immigration authorities.
With this move Representative Knowles has finally put into play the legislature's most effective weapon: the power of the purse. By moving to cut off state funding to institutions of higher learning that fail to enforce federal law he is serving notice that the Republican majority will no longer simply keep the money flowing. Knowles is saying if we fund you we expect you to enforce the law and not engage in ideologically symbolic acts on the taxpayers' dime.
He could take this several steps further. The appropriate legislative committees should undertake a review of the curriculum in place at every college or university the state funds. It could demand politically or ideologically motivated courses be eliminated or state funding will be halted.
Knowles could also apply his legislation a to "sanctuary cities." Most notably Philadelphia has indicated it will continue to harbor illegal immigrants and not enforce applicable state and federal laws related to bringing them to justice. The GOP majority in Harrisburg could flex its muscle and demand municipalities comply with all state and federal laws — or cut off funding.
Yes, there is a new reality in Harrisburg and now those who govern Penn's Woods must adjust accordingly. Governor Wolf has changed strategy, if not direction, and if Rep. Knowles is actually successful in defunding institutions that fail to uphold the law the GOP will also demonstrate its ability to effectively use their majorities to actually impact public policy.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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