Quick question: which party's legislative leadership would you expect to vote for a budget that plunges the state more deeply into debt by borrowing $600 million; relies on over $800 million in federal funding not yet approved by congress; agrees to levy a new tax on the only major industry in the state experiencing significant growth, creates an entire new government bureaucracy, and is based on unrealistic revenue projections?
If you answered Democrats, you would be right. But, you would also be correct if you answered Republicans. Yes, the entire leadership ranks of the Republican caucuses in the General Assembly joined with Governor Ed Rendell to pass a state budget that has been labeled by critics as a "house of cards," "government by postponement," and lacking in "fiscal sanity." GOP legislative leaders were so out of step the overwhelming majority of members in their own caucuses did not follow, and instead cast votes against the budget.
Driving the Republican leadership's support of what is clearly an unrealistic budget was an overwhelming desire to get the budget passed on time. The single biggest goal for leaders of both political parties was to avoid a replay of last year's 101-day budget stalemate. In the interest of "getting the job done on time," the leaders heaved overboard their party's principles and brand.
This is, unfortunately, not an unprecedented situation. During the early years of Governor Rendell's administration Republican leaders in both the house and the senate routinely broke with their own caucuses and voted to enact the governor's big spending agenda. Those votes, and those budgets, are responsible for the fact the state currently faces a structural deficit estimated to be over $5 billion dollars.
As a result of that desecration of the Republican brand, Republican primary voters rebelled and tossed many of those leaders from office, including the Senate President Pro Tempore and Majority Leader. Also voted out were enough big-spending state house members that Republicans lost their majority status in the lower chamber, a set-back from which they have yet to recover.
In recent years it looked like legislative Republicans had learned their lesson. Particularly in the house, and particularly last year, leaders and caucus members stood united again profligate spending and unreasonable budgets. That unity cracked when senate Republicans ultimately caved in last October to the governor's spending demands. But at least the house stood tall, creating bright lines of difference between them and the majority Democrats that gave birth to optimism the GOP could regain control of the house this year. That bright line has now been blurred.
Also improving GOP chances for legislative gains has been the steadfast position of the party's gubernatorial candidate, Attorney General Tom Corbett, that he will not raise taxes to deal with the state's budget deficit. Corbett correctly understands that Pennsylvania's working families and small businesses cannot afford higher taxes and that state government must now begin to live within our means. To prove he is sincere, Corbett signed the no tax pledge.
Again though, legislative leaders have done their best to muddle the message.
Senate Republican Leader Dominick Pileggi told the Pennsylvania Press Club he doesn't see how Governor Corbett can keep his promise not to raise taxes. Pileggi said Corbett has yet to share with him his strategy for balancing the budget without more revenue.
All Tom Corbett needs to do is point east to New Jersey. There the Garden State's new governor, Chris Christy, has stood tall and dramatically slashed state spending to the point his budget now more accurately reflects the ability of taxpayers to fund state government in the midst of what is shaping up to be a double dip recession. Corbett can learn a lot from Christy, and so could Pileggi. The difference is Corbett is willing to stand on principle and make the tough decisions required of a leader, Pileggi is captive of the tax and spend status quo.
Corbett's message is crisp, realistic, and consistent with core GOP principles. Republican leaders in the legislature, having not learned from past mistakes, have tarnished the brand and in the process diminished their electoral prospects. Fortunately, Corbett will have the bully pulpit going into the General Election campaign. If he pledges to clean up the legislature's fiscal mess, like he has already rooted out legislative corruption, Republicans might still be able to regain the public's trust. It would help though, if Republican leaders in the legislature would start acting more like Republicans, or, if they can't, at least do us the favor of shutting up until after the election.
(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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