Baer: Politics of the pending state budget

Pennsylvania Governor Prostate Cancer
Gov. Wolf backed off his plan to raise taxes, which isn't surprising during a legislative election year in need of a quiet budget agreement without crisis.

AS HARRISBURG moves toward a new state budget, let's take a look at the short- and long-term politics involved.

You might want to sit down. This gets dizzying.

First, the budget's getting done more or less on schedule without any big-time personal taxes and amid a new cordiality under Harrisburg's Big Top.

I sense you have questions:

Didn't the last budget take for-freaking-ever because our Democratic governor and Republican Legislature are ideological opposites, and isn't that still the case?

Yes.

Hasn't our Democratic governor for two years called for higher personal income taxes, increased or expanded sales taxes, taxes on natural gas, all while claiming the state's in "crisis," tumbling into fiscal hell?

Yes.

And isn't his argument that taxes are needed because there isn't revenue to meet "the math" for a constitutionally mandated balanced budget, and didn't he tell lawmakers just a few months back that they should get serious or "find another job?"

Correct.

Well, then, how to explain a fairly sudden - shall we say friendly? - shift in thinking?

It's the politics of now.

Now there's a bipartisan need for a quiet, no-distractions budget. So you can't be in a "crisis."

Now we're in a legislative election year. So you can't have big new taxes.

Now in just a matter of weeks there's a Democratic National Convention in Philly. So you can't be a Democratic governor spewing venom about irresponsible lawmakers while you can't get a budget done.

And any really extended delay past the July 1 deadline reminds all of the last budget battle, a nine-month poop-fest fiscally strapping schools and do-good groups and, more importantly, driving approval ratings into the toilet.

During the impasse, Gov. Wolf polled at 33 percent, and the faceless - and, by the way, horrible - Legislature was at 15 percent.

Latest polling has Wolf floating upward, but still underwater at 41 percent.

And the Legislature's numbers really don't matter. Its members' reelections are practically automatic. It can remain horrible without much risk.

So Wolf backed off. When I ask what happened to the "crisis" and taxes needed to balance a budget, he tells me, "I'm convinced we can do it without that."

When I ask why then ever propose higher taxes, he says, "I've learned more" (since doing so as recently as February).

We're either witnessing a miracle of math or genius budgeting or (and, spoiler alert: This one's the truth) another year of side-stepping critical issues certain to worsen next year.

Still-growing pension costs, property taxes, $2 billion deficit? For another day.

Right now it's about some new money for schools, some new money for opioid addiction (the social "crisis" replacing the fiscal "crisis") paid for with expanded gambling (look for slots on SEPTA buses next) and more tobacco taxes.

In fairness, Harrisburg delivered some booze relief by making it easier to get beer and wine, and it legalized medical marijuana: election year gifts to help you forget a larger, lamer lack of performance.

In the end, Republicans can claim a win for holding the line on personal taxes. Wolf can claim a win for getting something for schools. And both can take bows for "historic" liquor reform.

And you know what? Here in the Land of Low Expectations, paltry results equal political success - at least in the politics of the moment.

Just don't be surprised, come next year, when the state's facing a budget crisis and the governor's calling for tax increases to keep us from tumbling to fiscal hell.

baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer