John Baer: A few final thoughts on the state budget

Posted: October 12, 2009

SOME FINAL, I hope, state budget observations.

A Radnor reader writes, "All these shenanigans will in the end be good for the commonwealth."

The reader suggests that things discrediting and degrading government can help keep government from expanding its powers and spending.

Maybe, and maybe exposing the budget process leads to some positive change just as exposing the 2005 pay-grab led to a few reforms.

I'm not hopeful.

If every legislative candidate next year, especially those seeking re-election, signed oaths to mandate multiple deadlines for budget action with provisions for no pay if such deadlines aren't met, maybe I'd buy into my Radnor writer's theory.

But I fear that the passage of time and the emergence of crises to come will replace current voter revulsion toward our "leaders."

Still, there could be repercussions. All are guilty of ignominy and 101 days of negligence.

GOV ED: Storm-tossed. Called for no broad-based taxes then called for hiking the personal-income tax, then recalled that call. Called for taxing energy companies extracting natural gas, then recalled that call.

Mostly, though, he's guilty of presiding over a seventh straight late budget, of disengagement during critical points and of alienating lawmakers, calling them lazy and suggesting that their leaders be gassed.

(Not that he's wrong. But insults and death threats generally aren't the best negotiating tools.)

Yet he's home free: got $300 million more for education; can't run again and says that his public life ends when he leaves office in January 2011, except for involvement with Building America's Future, an infrastructure effort with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

There is, however, Rendell residue. The next few election cycles will be slippery for any southeast Democrat (listening, Joe Hoeffel, Tom Knox?), given Ed's reputation as a tax-and-spend Philophile.

REPUBLICAN SENATE: Steady as she goes. Often seemed as if the party of "no" and Senate President Joe Scarnati fell short of statesmanship by publicly labeling the Guv's positions "snake oil." But Scarnati and GOP Leader Dominic Pileggi held the line for no broad-based taxes, something they insisted on from the start.

The Senate will remain in GOP control because it represented its constituents and helped force more government cuts and fewer taxes than Rendell and Democrats wanted.

One constituency, tobacco growers and users, ducked a tax on smokeless tobacco and cigars. Pileggi said, "The judgment was made" that the Legislature wouldn't support these taxes. I imagine it doesn't hurt that a lobbyist for United Smokeless Tobacco, the world's largest producer, is former Republican State Chairman Alan Novak.

DEMOCRATIC HOUSE: Lost at sea. Leaders Todd Eachus, Keith McCall and Dwight Evans turned the process into a Punch and Judy Show, then supported a plan to tax the arts and small games of chance only to crow in a later news release that they "defeated a plan" to impose these taxes. They also lost credibility by making and then breaking a deal with Rendell and Senate Republicans.

And while the Senate cut its operating costs 10 percent, House leaders cut just 5 percent, saving $11 million for their own greedy selves. When I ask Evans about this, he says, "Everything's relative."

True, and it's relatively disgusting that lawmakers cut, for example, $10.7 million from job training or $7.5 million from aid to the homeless while keeping $11 million for themselves.

Democrats control the House, 104-99, with 15 freshmen. Lackluster performance on a budget with significant program cuts and $1 billion in new taxes (mostly on business) over two years could put House control in play next year.

Bottom line? The politics of this fiasco scarred and diminished all involved.

The policy decisions - including expanding gambling, leasing state land to drill for gas and cutting environmental protection - might do the same to the commonwealth. *

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