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Pa. Budget Battle: Gov. Wolf blinked

Published March 28. 2016 04:00PM

After being a record 271 days late, Pennsylvania finally has a 2015-16 budget, now that Gov. Tom Wolf blinked.

While the freshman Democratic governor from York believed he had right on his side throughout this nasty nine-month stalemate, the Republicans prevailed by showing that they had might on theirs. With commanding leads in both houses, Republicans refused to yield to Wolf’s call for an increase in the state income tax and an extraction tax on drillers in the Marcellus Shale area.

In the end, Wolf was caught between a rock and a hard place. His threat to veto the latest GOP budget was likely to be overridden with support from weary Democrats who were hearing the cries of angry school officials. Schools, welfare agencies and other institution desperately need the money to, in some cases, keep their doors open.

Wolf did not sign the budget; instead, he tried to save as much face as possible — and it wasn’t much — by letting the budget measure take effect at 12:01 a.m. today,10 days after arriving on his desk.

The Democratic leadership told Wolf it could no longer hold party members in line in the face of enormous pressure. In the process, they laid out the facts of political life for Wolf: If Wolf vetoed this part of the budget again, it is likely that enough Democrats would vote to override the veto.

The passed budget will take off the heat from local school districts for a short time, but unless both sides resolve not to repeat what occurred last year, we are going to see another battle royal, except this is an election year, and politicians running for re-election know that voting to raise taxes never endears them to prospective voters.

In his February budget message to the General Assembly, Wolf called for the state income tax to go from 3.07 to 3.40 percent. The Republican leadership said such a proposal was dead on arrival.

If we saw naked gimmickry in this past year’s budget, wait until we find what the Republicans will have to cook up to make the 2016-17 budget balance without a major tax increase, at least on paper.

Approving a partial budget in December, Wolf called the Republican-passed budget “wrong for many reasons, but especially because it does not balance, increases our deficit and fails to invest in our schools and our future.”

The budget the Republicans passed in mid-March was virtually the same as the one they presented to Wolf late last year. The Republican leadership said the complete 2015-16 budget spends $30.031 billion, a 3 percent increase over the 2014-15 spending plan, increases funding for education and doesn’t need new or increased taxes. Wolf said the Republicans came up with a budget that relies on “smoke and mirrors and gimmickry,” rather than one that addresses Pennsylvania’s deficit, pension woes and long-term educational needs.

As a result, Wolf predicts that because the state is not shouldering its responsibility to pass a credible budget, the costs of funding education and other critical areas will be pushed down to counties and municipalities and result in higher local property taxes.

State Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Allentown and South Whitehall Township, agrees. “The budget is a bad one that fails in every way,” he said.

Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-Carbon, said he is glad that Wolf finally realized that this budget cycle needs to be over. “By allowing the supplemental budget to become law, he’s releasing critical funds to schools, ag programs and human service agencies,” Heffley said. “Many Pennsylvanians would have been impacted had Gov. Wolf continued his veto streak,” Heffley also said.

Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Schuylkill, Carbon and Berks, said he is pleased that Wolf “finally realized that he can’t spend more than we have.”

Knowles said Wolf could have done what he did last summer and saved a lot of needless suffering within the education, agriculture and corrections communities. Jabbing at Wolf’s political naiveté, Knowles said, “I am hopeful that he’s learned how the process works.”

Sen. John Yudichak, D-Carbon and Luzerne, said he remains “deeply frustrated” with the budget process. “Now, it is time to move forward, in a bipartisan manner, to enact a responsible and timely budget for this upcoming fiscal year,” Yudichak said.

Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill and Berks, said there was a collective sigh of relief throughout the state. “This budget does not increase taxes on Pennsylvanians, which has been the overwhelming concern of residents from my district,” Argall added. “This is genuine bipartisan cooperation,” Argall said.

I find it laughable that Argall’s suggestion that what went down in Harrisburg was bipartisan cooperation. It was no such thing; it was pure political expediency, plain and simple.

Thinking he had a voters’ mandate when he was elected, Wolf played a strong hand out of the box, expecting that the Republicans would cave after a while when residents and the educational community would put pressure on them to pass a budget with significant funding increases for education. The pressure never came, at least not to the degree to sway the GOP leadership. They calculated — correctly — that residents had no stomach for major tax increases.

Wolf’s veto of the Republican budget set up the long budget impasse. Here again, Wolf miscalculated the Republican resolve. As summer turned into fall, and fall became winter, neither side would yield or even significantly compromise. When the governor and the Republican Senate leadership forged an agreement just before Christmas, and it looked as if the House rank-and-file would go along, the House Republican leadership pulled the rug out from under the deal, and all sides wound up with coal in their stockings for Christmas.

With most incumbents running for re-election this year without opposition, there is little to worry about when it comes to voter discontent. Even with the embarrassing and abysmal performance of legislators in 2015 and so far this year, don’t expect voters to punish incumbents.

While many senators and representatives are calling for bipartisan support for a workable budget, it’s the old story: Talk is cheap. Put your efforts where your mouth is.

Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

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