John Baer | Combatants emerge from budget mess unbloodied

Posted: July 11, 2007

AS SMOKE clears - and there's always lots of it - on a new state budget agreement, the interesting thing to me is that nobody lies gutted on the Rotunda floor.

Not newbie Senate Republican leaders, who insisted on GOP "core values": less state spending, no new taxes. They didn't get less spending but there are no new taxes.

Not the Democratic House, as dysfunctional a clan as exists in elective government. They abandoned their guv by folding on spending, but stood with the Big Guy enough to make it look like party unity.

And not the Big Guy himself, who managed, while losing lots of what he sought - sales tax, health-insurance tax, electricity tax and more - still got big money for mass transit and education.

So nobody bleeds on the Capitol's colorful mosaic tile.

Ah, compromise.

"Everybody blinked," says Gov. Ed. "We all blinked a little bit . . . unless there's mutual blinking there's no budget."

There was. And so there is.

The Legislature now prepares to approve a $27.5 billion plan, the first in the post-pay-raise "age of reform," a process that'll take days, maybe the weekend, thanks to rule changes preventing lawmakers from shoving stuff down our throats.

The agreement, importantly to Philadelphia, brings new dedicated funding to SEPTA - more than $200 million this year, much more later - enough to forestall service cuts and fare increases for years (but not enough, says SEPTA, to roll back yesterday's 11 percent fare hike; come on, this is still Pennsylvania).

It brings new money to Philly schools for early education, tutoring and computers, and guarantees expansion of the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

"We've done exceptionally well," says His Edness.

Still, this agreement, reached Monday night, nine days late, after a needless delay that included humiliation and worry for almost 24,000 state workers deemed "nonessential" and furloughed without pay, is no gem of good government.

(Notice that casino operators stayed open and made money while state workers got laid off and lost money? Some things never change.)

In the end, a battle started on principles such as moving Pennsylvania progressively forward with bold plans to fund medical research, broad health-care reform and alternate energy sources ended with an agreement to increase tax breaks for moviemakers and feed WAMS (walking around money) to all four legislative caucuses, reportedly $115 million each.

It is significant and a real victory that Rendell, thanks to heavy lifting by Vince Fumo (even under federal indictment) and Dwight Evans (whom 95 percent of Philly voters wanted to stay in Harrisburg), won a $750 million transportation-funding deal.

It pays for roads, bridges and mass transit without raising taxes, the money coming from increased turnpike tolls and tolls on I-80 in northern Pennsylvania.

It's a plan Fumo devised after Eddie's "let's lease the turnpike" fell like an anvil dropped from a barn loft.

But that deal, possible because of its appeal to rural and western lawmakers with rotting bridges and potholed highways, is an easier sell than funding universal health care, medical research or energy policy.

Those issues, issues Rendell blinked on, are delayed until fall as part of a political commitment by Republicans to seriously consider and vote on them then.

Problem is, political commitments tend to be like Jell-O - easy to mold, tough to hold on to.

Fumo, who's worked 22 consecutive budgets, calls this one "bizarre." He notes that past fights focused on where money was going while this one focused on money not going anywhere.

"The dynamic was totally different," says Fumo, "These Republicans just didn't want to spend."

But spend they did: a 4.5 percent increase, according to Rendell. But without new taxes: "Our pro-taxpayer position prevailed," according to Senate GOP Appropriations boss Sen. Gib Armstrong.

Which means citizens can visit their Capitol without risk of stepping in entrails. *

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