It is budget time in Harrisburg. The deadline for approving the state's new spending plan is June 30th. With Republicans in control of the governorship and both houses of the legislature there is resolve to get the job done on time — something that never happened during the Ed Rendell years.
But Republican unity — at the moment — ends with the calendar. Deep divisions are emerging between the decidedly more moderate senate Republican leadership and the conservative-leaning house GOP. The house has sided with Governor Tom Corbett when it comes to holding the line on spending.
You may recall that Pennsylvania faces a $4.5 billion budget deficit and that Governor Corbett has proposed deep spending cuts, especially in education funding, to balance the budget. The governor has said he won't accept any budget that spends more than $27.3 billion, which is the amount the commonwealth expects to have available to spend during the coming fiscal year without raising taxes.
Governor Corbett and Senate Majority Leader Domenic Pileggi (R-Delaware) have had a running feud over taxes. During the campaign last year candidate Corbett pledged "no new taxes." Pileggi said it couldn't be done. Now Governor, Corbett has stuck to his pledge and Pileggi is trying every maneuver he can think of to take more money from the pockets of the state's recession ravaged taxpayers.
Oddly enough, the most recent point of disagreement is a surplus. Revenues over the past couple of months have come in at $506 million more than projected. The free-spending Pileggi wants to increase next year's spend figure by that amount. Corbett and house Republicans are saying no; the improved revenue flow can't be counted on and it would be fiscally irresponsible to increase spending at this time.
This kerfuffle again exposes the degree to which the Senate Republican leadership has yet to get the repeated messages sent by voters that they want the days of profligate spending in Harrisburg to come to an end. Recall it was Senate Republicans who caved into Governor Ed Rendell and provided the votes that passed the bloated budgets that gave us the current massive deficit. House Republicans held firm against the Rendell spending spree only to be sold out by the colleagues in the upper chamber.
All this is happening because the GOP leadership in the senate remains a bastion of old-time pork barrel politics. Despite the fact its current leadership came to power in the wake of voter outrage over the middle-of-the-night pay raise — which dispatched their predecessors into retirement — nothing has really changed in the senate.
There is growing restlessness among the grassroots over the lack of progress in Harrisburg toward enacting a conservative agenda. Conservatives are looking wistfully at New Jersey, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Virginia and other states where real progress toward reform is being made. Five months into the legislative year next to nothing has been done in Penn's Woods.
The bottleneck is the state senate. On issue after issue the senate is frustrating the conservative agenda. It has yet to pass even a watered down version of Senate Bill # 1, the school choice bill. Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati (R-Jefferson) is pushing for a tax on Marcellus Shale drillers — a clear violation of the Corbett no tax pledge. There is general apathy in the state senate toward privatizing the state's liquor stores, a top priority of House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny). And House Bill # 1, a common sense lawsuit abuse reform that actually passed the legislature during Ed Rendell's term before being met with a gubernatorial veto, is still sitting in a senate committee.
And now, with the budget process entering a critical phase, the senate's GOP leadership once again is sounding more like the Democratic State Committee than a Republican-controlled legislative body. Rather than working with the governor and their colleagues in the house to spend within our means, they are pushing for new taxes and higher spending.
If Scarnati and Pileggi want new taxes and more spending then they should put the matter to a floor vote right now — today. No cutting deals in the back rooms. If you want higher spending, then let's see if your caucus members will put up a recorded vote. That way we the people can find out who is on the side of the taxpayers and who is on the side of the spending interests.
In the meantime, Governor Corbett and the House GOP are standing firm against raising taxes or increasing the spend number. Voters are watching this intramural dispute very closely. Republicans were given control of state government to put a lid on spending — we will soon see if that promise is actually kept.
(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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