In Pa., it's time for bold budget action (or not)

Posted: June 03, 2014

IF IT'S JUNE, it must be budget time.

Ah, June, when state leaders who put off dealing with pressing issues during the other months rush to put off dealing with pressing issues before leaving Harrisburg for summer vacation.

It's always exciting.

The budget's due June 30.

That means weeks of shouts and shrieks, public protests, private pleadings and much political wheedling.

It means extra per-diems and catered meals to help the Capitol gang better debate issues of the day.

And it means we'll hear why Philly schools need more money (or don't), why we must fix the pension crisis (or not) and why Gov. Corbett's lower business taxes and less government spending make for a better state (or don't).

There will be feints and fights over taxing natural gas, reforming or 86ing state stores, accepting Medicaid expansion for the poor and more.

And, because it's an election year, it's a certainty all this gets heavily infused with incumbent-protective politics.

The only other certainty? The budget is (shocker) a mess.

There's a $1.3 billion to $1.4 billion revenue gap that could grow by month's end.

Yep. Pennsylvania yet again is showing America it's different.

Most states have budget surpluses, thanks to a (slowly) recovering national economy. Who doesn't? Mississippi, New Jersey, Nevada and us.

Some blame Corbett's fiscal policies. Others argue that our state doesn't fall as hard as others during recessions but doesn't bounce back as quickly afterward, and that Corbett's fiscal policies need more time to work.

Regardless of the cause, the budget hole is deep and it means either cuts, new revenue (taxes) or both; and brawls over details.

Will lawmakers cut spending in an election year - cuts that come from education and welfare, because that's where the money is?

Here's a hint: Education polls high with voters as an issue of concern. And it's an election year.

Will Corbett sign any new tax bill, especially a natural-gas severance tax that he's opposed since taking office?

(Not to mention his no-tax pledge before taking office.)

That one gets dicey.

There's speculation that Corbett just allowed gas drillers to expand under state parks and forests as a carrot to prepare them for the stick of a severance tax. But Corbett's office dances on any specifics.

In fact, most specifics related to the budget are at this stage vague.

On cuts: "I don't want to pre-judge where the discussions might lead," says Senate GOP Leader Dominic Pileggi, adding, "There's very broad support for increased education spending" as called for in Corbett's proposed budget.

Asked about passing a budget without new revenue (taxes), Pileggi says, "It's doable . . . (but) politically challenging in an election year."

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Adolph says "there's definitely support" for education increases because many school districts already budgeted on the basis of Corbett's proposed increases.

But he suggests that finding money won't be easy, noting that because of dips in revenue collection, "We may actually receive less money than last year."

Meanwhile, old pieces of the puzzle that never fit before still sit on the table: Medicaid expansion, liquor privatization, pension reform, smokeless tobacco/cigar tax, corporate-tax changes and the big one - a gas-extraction tax.

On that, there are real discussions about rates to bring in anywhere from $350 million to $650 million. But both sides note that Corbett appears to remain opposed to such a tax, and just weeks ago Corbett told me, "It makes no sense."

Now, however, his spokesman says budget discussions need to take place before "we would be in a position to comment" on whether the governor would sign a severance tax if sent one.

So, stay tuned. It's June. And anything can happen (or not).




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