Residents of Penn's Woods are about to experience history in the making: the start of a new state budget year with the previous year's budget still unresolved. Governor Tom Wolf guaranteed the anomaly by line item vetoing almost a third of the budget passed by the GOP-controlled legislature just before Christmas.
The official start of the budget process comes in early February when the governor delivers his budget address to a joint session of the Pennsylvania General Assembly. For a variety of reasons the remaining unresolved budget issues from the current fiscal year are likely to remain that way well past the governor's budget speech currently scheduled for February 9th.
Governor Wolf began the current impasse last winter by proposing a massive increase in state spending and demanding a package of tax hikes that exceeded the tax increases proposed by the governors of all 49 other states combined. The governor asked this of a legislature not only in control of the opposite political party, but one that holds historically high majorities and one which has become significantly more conservative in recent years.
It is a common strategy for both sides to stake out their most extreme position at the beginning of negotiations. That leaves room for compromise, which is what always happens during budget talks. Governor Wolf asked for $3.4 billion in new spending, the GOP preferred spending cuts. Ultimately, Republicans agreed to a $1 billion increase, including significant additional funding for the governor's top spending priority: public education. The governor, however, wants everything he asked for and he wants in now. Thus began the budget impasse which persists to this day.
The governor has made it clear he is not interested in compromise. After vetoing the on-time, no tax hike, balanced state budget passed by Republicans last June he immediately sanctioned television ads blasting GOP lawmakers. In another departure from tradition Wolf vetoed the entire budget. In the past governors have signed the budget then blue lined or line item vetoed the parts with which they disagreed. Wolf, however, wanted to ratchet up the political pressure on Republicans so he trashed the entire thing.
Since then there have been numerous votes on alternative budgets, proposed tax hikes, and so-called cost drivers including pension reform and a plan to partially privatize state liquor stores. GOP lawmakers have passed these bills only to have the governor wield his veto pen.
Governor Wolf and his allies in the liberal media have taken to castigating Republicans, especially House Republicans for being "extremists" because they will not support a broad-based tax hike. Largely unreported by the media is the fact Democrats in the legislature have been equally obstinate in their support of the governor's tax and spend agenda. Vote after vote has fallen along party lines with only a handful of defections on either side of the aisle.
This (aside from the governor's stubborn streak) gets to the core of the impasse: Democrats have been reduced to a largely urban party that allows no deviation from its Left-wing agenda. Conservatives dominate in the Republican caucus, but there is a group of moderate, mostly southeastern Pennsylvania legislators, who often fracture party unity by siding with Democrats.
And look for Democrats to become more ideologically rigid after this year's elections. State Representative Nick Kotik of Allegheny County is one of only a very few so-called blue dog Democrats and he is retiring. The term blue dog originated because the Left strangles their moderate brethren blue to force compliance. This canine is about to become extinct in the Pennsylvania legislature.
In its place is another shade of blue: that being the governor's face. He is determined to hold his breath until he gets his way. He has called Republicans stupid, extreme and their most recent budget "garbage." By remaining in campaign mode rather than maturing into governing the governor's strategy ensures not only that the current budget impasse will continue, but that Pennsylvanians are in for three more years of fiscal chaos.
(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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