Harrisburg Happenings: October 28, 2015
Even after 120 days, an agreed-upon budget remains elusive.
Thirty days has September, April, June, and November. All the rest have thirty-one - except the Commonwealth budget … which has 120 and counting.
As the House of Representatives returned to voting session in early October, House Majority Leader Dave Reed stuck to his pledge to run a floor vote on the Governor's budget proposal. It was a litmus test of sorts to determine the appetite for passing what has been billed by some as a "broad based tax increase." What many don't know is only one part of the Governor's proposal was given consideration: a further effort to label House Democrats as wanting to impose an increased burden on taxpayers. After eight-plus hours of pontificating from both sides of the aisle, the measure failed along mostly party lines, 73-127. In predicting the final vote, Rep. Reed commented that the coming days would bring substantive work towards a final budget.
Many have prophesied tax increases to fall "squarely on the backs of working Pennsylvanians." Those same pundits fail to elucidate that by moving away from relying on a regressive property tax structure, the Commonwealth steps toward a structure that aligns more with one's ability to pay. Those same "tax and spend" critics also neglect to share that perpetuating a business-as-usual approach to school funding will force a school property tax increase in order to balance districts' budgets. That mentality will cause our children to fall farther behind as more cuts are made to already-strapped districts like Erie's Public Schools.
I've written repeatedly in this column that the Commonwealth is well past the time to secure alternative forms of funding, and also that Pennsylvania is the only gas-producing state that doesn't have a severance tax. I will concede that the amount of revenue from a severance tax is market driven, but the gas beneath our feet isn't going to dry up anytime soon and can be an ongoing revenue driver.
Inarguably, the Commonwealth faces an agreed-upon $1.3 billion structural deficit. And if there isn't an honest effort to address the shortfall, the General Assembly will be here again, or in a yet more desperate situation, when negotiating the 2016-2017 budget.
Now on the negotiating table is the expansion of gambling offerings to include internet-based options like daily fantasy sports games and online gaming. There are conflicting reports about just how much revenue that would generate for the Commonwealth and the regulations necessary to make it happen.
Smack in the middle of the budget impasse is the withholding of funding for schools. Fueling that fire is the recent realization that charter schools statewide have exploited a loophole allowing them to appeal non-payment of funds from school districts. This technicality permits the state to find the money in any coffer necessary to pay the freight. Thus, payments of late have been pulled from gaming revenue designed to provide property tax relief to homeowners. As charters bill themselves as "tuition-free, public schools," it is quite obvious that the rules are different; and also that the Commonwealth's charter law has long needed a complete overhaul to bring it in line with public education.
As we knock on the door of November, what remains is quite simple: an agreement regarding the 2015-2016 Commonwealth budget must be reached. In that process, legislators must provide the Governor with a spending plan that will garner his signature. How to make that happen has remained elusive … 120 days of elusive.
Senator Sean D. Wiley can be contacted at SenatorWiley@pasenate.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @SenatorWiley.