Harrisburg Happenings: December 23, 2015
Hoping for a Christmas compromise.
Indulge me for a moment and keep this in mind as you are reading: Merriam-Webster defines "compromise" as a.) a way of reaching agreement in which each person or group gives up something that was wanted in order to end an argument or dispute, and b.) something that combines the qualities of two different things.
Over six months ago, Governor Wolf exercised his constitutional power of veto and stamped the proposed Fiscal Year 2015-2016 spending plan as "unacceptable," sending it back to the General Assembly along with a note to members that this plan was simply not going to happen. That proposed plan failed to include much or any of the Governor's initiatives to adequately address the lack of funding for education, human services, job creation, etc.
Throughout the end of summer and into fall, true compromise remained seemingly elusive as party lines were drawn sometimes in the sand, other times in stone where ideologies held firm.
The Wolf administration has long-maintained that increases in education funding were a must, as is a structurally balanced budget. Majority leadership in the Senate was willing to trade those two elements for reform of the public pension system — and the way the state controls the liquor system — but majority leadership in the House apparently marched to a different beat.
After a few false starts, the second week of December saw a bi-partisan budget bill pass the Senate that incorporates historic increases in funding for education and human services. Senate Bill 1073, a $30.8 billion budget proposal, includes $400 million in education funding with $50 million reserved for Pre-K Counts and $10 million for Head Start programs. Under this proposal, the City of Erie School District stands to gain an additional $5.5 million and Millcreek Township School District an additional $823,000, to name a few.
The plan also invests $56 million in new funds to reduce waiting lists for programs serving the elderly and disabled, while restoring approximately $28 million in previous cuts to county human services. The Department of Human Services will partner with the Department of Drug & Alcohol Programs for a combined total of $7.5 million in new funding to address the opioid and heroin addiction epidemic across the Commonwealth.
Additionally, the Department of Community & Economic Development would see over $90 million to expand job-creation programs, and the Department of Labor & Industry almost $10 million to address vocational rehabilitation and support programs for people with disabilities as well as industry partnerships to fill vacant jobs with a skilled workforce.
This bi-partisan budget proposal was balanced, invested in education, human services, and job creation, and represented over six months of negotiated compromise. I voted for its passage, confident that what was put forth was in the best interest of this Commonwealth in the current climate.
What was missing from this proposal was any sniff of property tax relief as well as a severance tax on Marcellus Shale drilling, both huge concessions made by the Wolf administration. The Senate majority leadership agreed to modernize the state-run liquor system, moving away from previous attempts to privatize the entity, as well as to a pension reform proposal that was not as severe as previous attempts.
Enter here the way of reaching agreement in which each person or group gives up something that was wanted in order to end an argument or dispute.
Running parallel to the Senate budget negotiations were budget discussions in the House of Representatives, namely House Bill 1460. This proposal totaled $30.26 billion and included less of an increase in education funding and other line items, passing the House 115-86 on Dec. 8. Upon receiving HB 1460, the Senate Appropriations Committee promptly exercised a "gut and replace" measure, stripping all of its original language and replacing it with the language of SB 1073, the Senate budget vehicle. All indications coming from the House were that the dueling proposals were on a collision course, where and when that would happen remained to be determined.
The common question clinging to both spending plans like zebra mussels on a Lake Erie boat is how to raise the needed revenue to pay for either budget proposal. Additional revenue is required to not only address the increases in funding for education, human services, and job creation; but also the agreed-to structural deficit that has crept to over $1 billion. Herein lies the true impasse … and so the political ping-pong game continues.
As I write this at the close of the third week in December, the Senate returns to session under a cloud of cynicism and frustration. I try not to convey too much of my own concern, rather aiming to update the reader on the lasts from our capital city. Given the stall in progress, that becomes more difficult as the days drag on.
The holiday spirit in us all hopes for a Christmas compromise, and a resolution by the time this column is printed.
Senator Sean D. Wiley can be contacted at SenatorWiley@pasenate.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @SenatorWiley.