Harrisburg Happenings: Back at Square One with the Budget Bill
The majority of the General Assembly continues to ignore the voice of the voter and instead puts forth its own out-of-touch priorities.
Article IV Section 15 of the Pennsylvania Constitution grants the power of veto to the Governor of the Commonwealth. Gov. Tom Wolf exercised that right late on Tuesday, June 30, sending the 2015-2016 Fiscal Year Budget back to the General Assembly – stamped as "unacceptable."
Leadership in both chambers had approximately three months to review the $30 billion plan priorities that the Governor laid out in March of this year. In my column in May, I wrote about conflicting examples of bipartisanship where in the course of two short days we saw bicameral cooperation at its finest ultimately be decimated by partisan rhetoric, a bully pulpit, and a wide enough margin of majority votes to ram through bad legislation. In budget negotiations past, there have been many "keep out" signs that have adorned the proverbial aisle between the sides of the Senate chamber, as was quite evident by the party lines passing of previous budgets bills.
In an effort to uproot those "keep out" signs, Gov. Wolf held a series of budget talks with GOP leaders to provide an agreeable foundation on which to move forward. The Governor had also made it abundantly clear that any spending plan that included budget tricks, unrealistic revenue estimates, and one-time fund transfers would be unacceptable.
I shared the Governor's sentiment in that regard, as I had been forced to vote against the budget for the last two fiscal years, as the spending plans were shortsighted, filled with gimmicks, and woefully underfunded public education. We didn't have a crystal ball then, but it was obvious to my colleagues and me that what was being proposed was not a strategy to move this Commonwealth in the right direction, and it's obvious where those ideologies have landed us – facing a remarkable debt and with historic shortfalls in public education funding.
I still don't have that crystal ball, but we are tremendously well past the stage where this Commonwealth has needed to look for new revenues outside of a property tax increase. We've relied on the most regressive form of taxation to fill the coffers and are living the reality of record numbers of delinquencies. Couple that with a past reliance on revenues that weren't likely to materialize, and haven't, and this Commonwealth faced over a $2 billion shortfall, looking at that deficit long-term.
In mid-June, the Independent Fiscal Office (IFO) released a report noting that actual revenues were on track to be almost $2 billion above the June 2014 numbers as well as $360 million more than the Governor's anticipations. With much of that revenue being the direct result of one-time factors, the IFO was not able to project whether the coming fiscal year will see the same sort of upward trend, leaving the taxpayer to sort through creative accounting of previous spending plans to determine the baseline on which to move forward.
As with every budget negotiation, I expected much posturing as each side had their own strategy to bridge the gap of the deficit. The GOP focused on sweeping changes to the Commonwealth liquor system coupled with systemic changes to the public employee pension system to drive an influx of one-time revenues. The Governor's plan focused on a tax on natural gas production, true property tax reform utilizing an atypical formula, and a reduction of the pension unfunded liability by modernizing the state run liquor system to help cover the cost of the necessary bonds.
Within those two strategies was to be common ground – or so we had hoped. Those hopes were quickly and vehemently dashed when the GOP introduced their own budget vehicle and subsequently rammed the bill through the House and then the Senate. There was nothing bipartisan nor in the best interest of the citizens of this Commonwealth in what happened during these negotiations – if one can even call them negotiations.
Being creative in shifting money around doesn't address the problems faced by this Commonwealth and also doesn't provide an ongoing strategy of sustainability. If you move the ball under one cup, the other cup is still empty. The General Assembly once again sent a budget to the Governor that continued to ignore additional sources of revenue for fear of political consequences.
My Democratic colleagues and I offered a number of good and reasonable solutions to land on a balanced budget, but those doors were shut in our faces, deadbolts locked, and the lights turned off. It was clear that no one on the other side of the aisle was interested in furthering those conversations.
It is quite evident that the voters across this Commonwealth were ready for a fresh start by electing Gov. Wolf, but the majority of the General Assembly continues to ignore the voice of the voter and instead puts forth its own out of touch priorities that don't survive outside the vacuum of their short-sighted ideology.
So we find ourselves back at the proverbial square one. A veto sends the budget bill back to its chamber of origin, in this case the House of Representatives, for further review. Indications are that leadership in both chambers will continue to review the conflicting plans in search of compromise and members of the General Assembly will return the week of July 13 for more of the same reviews.
I do look forward to a time when the General Assembly and the Administration can come together to agree upon a responsible and equitable funding plan in advance of the deadline, avoiding this type of stalemate. Citizens across this Commonwealth deserve better.
Senator Sean D. Wiley can be contacted at SenatorWiley@PaSenate.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @SenatorWiley.