John Baer | It looks like another down-to-the-wire act

Posted: June 29, 2007

AS YOUR Legislature heads to the end of its fiscal year with issues such as SEPTA hanging and yet another budget deadline passing, a couple/three things occur to me.

First, Gov. Ed, who each year proposes taking the state to the stars then settles for a nice night on the town, is again holding out for more than the Legislature seems ready to give.

He wants more money for education, more for transit, more for alternate energy, more for health care and just plain more.

The Legislature, the largest, most expensive full-time body of its kind in the country, is again proving incapable of meeting its only real responsibility: annually approving state spending on time.

The deadline is midnight tomorrow. It will be missed.

The notion that the guv and lawmakers might recognize these behavioral patterns and adjust them is, I suppose, too much to hope for, akin to expecting any government to act efficiently.

One wonders whether things might work better if government treated itself the way it treats its citizens.

People paying taxes late are forced to pay a penalty.

How about: Lawmakers adopting a budget late are forced to forfeit pay and perks for every day a deadline's missed?

Just a thought.

Second, this year's hold-up is critical to Philly because of SEPTA.

The agency yesterday approved an 11 percent fare hike starting July 9, plus another boost and service cuts to take effect in September unless the Legislature gives it $100 million more.

In overall budget negotiations, the guv and House Democrats reportedly are $300 million apart from Senate Republicans on basic issues such as education spending and health care for the needy.

In a $27 billion budget, this is a distance easily closed.

But the guv's request for at least $1 billion in new highway, bridge and SEPTA money threatens to carry negotiations well into July.

Rendell says he won't sign a budget without new transit money.

Senate Republicans yesterday were reviewing a House-passed transit bill giving new aid to SEPTA and more power to the city on the SEPTA board.

When I ask Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia, who drove the bill through the House, what happens next, he says, "I seriously don't know. The ball's in their [the Senate's] court."

When I ask Senate GOP Leader Dominic Pileggi's aide Erik Arenson, he says, "We are fully engaged in reviewing the House plan and understand the urgency."

To me, this seems a good sign and suggests despite prevailing upstate attitudes ("We ain't payin' for people in Filthadelfy to ride no buses") a deal can be struck.

All Rendell needs now is to find highway or bridge projects in five Republican districts and promise approval in exchange for transit votes.

Those five, plus 21 Democrats constitute a Senate majority and SEPTA gets its money.

Oh, and if suburban Republicans balk about proposed increased city power on the board? Pitch it. Better to have the dough.

Finally, Rendell's right when he says, as he did in the Capitol yesterday, that the only folks who care about meeting the fiscal deadline are "people who habitate this building."

(This, apparently, excludes himself; he notes while some suggest his favorable ratings drop if there's a government shutdown he says, "Who cares? . . . my chances of becoming baseball commissioner will not rest on my favorable ratings.")

But late budgets can lead to makeshift deals and policy of convenience, such as what's likely to occur on transit.

It's not the way to run a government and Rendell knows it. He acknowledged, in a moment of clarity, "Of course we're doing something wrong . . . what's wrong is the process," and even said he'll work with lawmakers on a better schedule for next year.

As for this year? Ask an old military vet what SNAFU stands for. *

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