EDITORIAL: Budget clock starts now
Mark this date on your calendars: Feb. 7.
That’s when Gov. Tom Wolf delivered his annual state budget address to a joint session of the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Considering the rancorous reception that greeted the Democrat’s first budget proposal in 2015 — which led to a nine-month standoff that dragged into 2016 — this one was fairly well-received.
No, there was no cheering from the Republican side, but there was no immediate push-back, either.
It appears Wolf and the lawmakers were seeking common ground.
Facing an estimated $3 billion deficit, the governor proposed a $32.3 billion spending plan for the 2017-18 fiscal year, which includes $1 billion in new spending.
Avoiding sales or income tax increases that are unlikely to garner enough support in the Legislature, Wolf instead suggests balancing the budget by boosting efficiency and cutting spending — echoing GOP mantras — and imposing a severance tax on natural gas drillers and a fee on municipalities that use the state police for their law enforcement coverage.
Other features of Wolf’s plan include leasing the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex, cutting funding for public school transportation while boosting overall education spending, closing business tax loopholes and increasing the minimum wage.
“The governor certainly took a few pages from our playbook,” House Speaker Mike Turzai told The Associated Press, adding he still would like to see more emphasis on privatizing government services, reducing debt and fostering school choice.
That’s somewhat encouraging — but what of the pages that didn’t come from Republicans? Will lawmakers be able to compromise with Wolf and the Democrats for the greater good of Pennsylvania residents?
Something has to give, as the governor has said repeatedly.
“Our commonwealth has been operating with a structural deficit for a long time,” Wolf told lawmakers during Tuesday’s address. “That means Harrisburg has been living beyond its means. Households can’t do that, and neither can we.”
Stan Saylor, the York County Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said the Legislature's job now is to vet Wolf's proposals to make sure the projected revenue is correct in order to prevent overspending.
We’d like to stress “now” in the above statement.
Wolf made his proposal on Feb. 7, and the Legislature is required by law to approve a budget before July 1. That leaves almost five months to weigh the governor’s suggestions and work out any differences of opinion.
Almost every year it seems there’s a flurry of activity toward the end of June, as if lawmakers suddenly realized they had a budget deadline looming.
That deadline is state law, by the way, but there are no consequences for missing it.
That might explain why the state Legislature blew the deadline 37 percent of the time between 1961 and 2006, according to the Tribune-Review, which cited a Columbia University political scientist with expertise in state budgets.
We’d like to see hearings and debate begin immediately.
Why shouldn’t municipalities such as Red Lion, which dropped out of York Area Regional Police and now relies on state police for coverage, have to pay for that service?
Why shouldn’t Marcellus Shale drillers pay a severance tax in Pennsylvania? They pay in every other large natural gas-producing state.
And what’s this about cutting school transportation funding?
There’s plenty of time to discuss these potentially contentious issues — as long as lawmakers don’t waste it.