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Pa. budget dispute sets modern-day record

Published March 04. 2016 04:00PM

Usually, setting records is something to be proud of - a unique, notable achievement. So, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and the 253 members of the General Assembly, take a bow; tomorrow, you will have set a record for the longest state budget impasse in modern history - 249 days and counting.

What? No high-fives all around? No applause? No commendations?

Sorry, ladies and gentlemen of our state government, all you get is our scorn, cynicism, contempt and two thumbs down for failing to perform your most basic of duties.

They said it couldn't be done, but, by darn, you proved them wrong: You bettered the sorry mess of 1970 when then Gov. Raymond Shafer, a Republican, and the General Assembly tussled for 248 days before coming up with an agreement, including the first state income tax. It took until March 6, 1971, to sign off on that budget.

As incredible as all of this is, it is not the longest we have gone without a budget. That distinction goes back 60 years to the administration of Democratic Gov. George M. Leader and the General Assembly of 1956 when it took 336 days to pass a budget.

Since 1960, which is considered the modern era, this is the 12th late state budget. Aside from this year's, three of the other deadlocks lasted more than 100 days - Gov. David Lawrence, 134 days, signed in November 1959; Ed Rendell, 176 days, signed on Dec. 23, 2003, and Rendell again, 101 days, signed in October 2009. Both Lawrence and Rendell are Democrats.

Terry Madonna, a political scientist and well-known pollster from Franklin & Marshall College, noted that other raging battles, although not as long, caused some real pain throughout the commonwealth.

The 1977 budget standoff between Gov. Milton Shapp, another Democrat, and the General Assembly featured 6,700 state employees going weeks without paychecks, labor unions leading daily walkouts and fistfights on the House floor between several state representatives and between representatives and protesting welfare recipients who could not get their checks. The University of Pittsburgh's Chancellor, Wesley Posvar, threatened to close the university during the fall semester.

The 1977 impasse bears some similarities to the 2015-16 debacle we are in today. Then-Gov. Shapp, a businessman like current Gov. Wolf, had proposed unprecedented new education money and other new programs. He wanted to pay for them with a 1 percent increase in the state sales tax and an increase in the state income tax.

Wolf had originally proposed similar increases to boost education funding, along with a severance tax on natural gas drilling.

As a trade-off, Wolf called for steep reductions in the local property taxes collected by school districts, counties and municipalities across the commonwealth.

When that did not fly, he modified his tax proposal by calling for an increase in the state income tax from 3.04 to 3.40 percent, or a 12 percent increase.

He also took the state sales tax increase and the property-tax relief proposals off the table, but this compromise did not get the support of the House Republican leadership.

In 2003, the first year of Rendell's tenure, the fight for education funding went on for nearly six months, and some schools began threatening to shutter their doors for lack of funding.

Sound familiar? That's what has been happening this budget year before Wolf approved partial funding for the state's schools earlier this year. Without a budget agreement, however, there are likely to be more school-closing threats before the end of the year in June, especially in troubled districts.

Former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett had four on-time budgets, but became the only Pennsylvania governor in modern times to be defeated in a re-election bid.

In 2014, Wolf was elected on a mandate to restore education funding that Corbett and the Republican-controlled General Assembly had slashed between 2011 and 2014.

Interestingly, Corbett also received an electoral mandate when he ran in 2010 to cut spending, which he did, much of it at the expense of education. This perceived assault on education is what led to Corbett's undoing in the 2014 gubernatorial election.

In their infinite wisdom, Pennsylvania voters in 2014 elected a Democratic governor and bolstered the Republicans' control of the General Assembly, effectively giving us a mini-Washington, D.C., where there is a Democratic president and a heavily dominated Republican Congress.

The result in both capitals: virtual gridlock.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

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