Pa. budget: June gloom or brand new brightness?

NOT TO PEDDLE progress or optimism in a state familiar with neither, but there are flickers of hope in usually hopeless Harrisburg that could be suggestive of positive change.

For one thing, partisan waves of name-calling have ebbed - mostly.

And recently, the legislature, even Gov. "No Budget" Wolf, did stuff that lots of people like.

Medical marijuana, a tougher drunken-driving law, a fairer school funding formula, heck, even beer at gas stations; though that last one isn't new, still faces a court challenge, and, honestly, when Wolf said "free the six-pack," I thought he was encouraging us to lose belly fat.

But these are areas pushing the state toward places it rarely goes: modern times and more in line with most of the rest of America.

Can it be? Is the Land of Low Expectations raising its so-low bar to a point where people might start believing their government's working for them?

Nah.

This is mostly makeup for all those months of wasted time and resources during a record-breaking budget impasse that left Democrat Wolf and Republican lawmakers ideologically landlocked, unwilling or unable to govern.

For the legislature, an election year for the full House and half the Senate is the time to pass measures that get some positive notice.

For Wolf, well, I assume some smart staffer said: "Boss, people like beer. Do something people like."

And that's fine. But it doesn't alter the fact that another budget is at their throats with the same mix of wishes for new taxes or spending cuts, with the same nasty problem of a big budget deficit.

The state's Independent Fiscal Office projects the state will spend about $1.3 billion more than it takes in during the fiscal year starting July 1. And the state constitution mandates an annual balanced budget.

So you can see the problem.

It's not a new one. Every time we turn around there's a big budget deficit.

Wolf, in his first budget, offered sweeping fixes: Cut business taxes, cut Philly's wage tax, cut property taxes; increase sales and income taxes, and do it all at once to create a new and fairer tax balance using a "holistic" solution.

But three-fourths of legislators didn't know what "holistic" meant, thought it had something to do with hippies, and so the plan was DOA.

Instead we got no-new-taxes, no-new-nothin' maintenance. Wolf allowed it to become law without his signature in March. And property taxes and taxpayer-paid, cost-driving issues such as pensions, deficits, and debt again were unaddressed.

Don't be surprised to see that reprised. Signs are in place.

GOP Sen. Scott Wagner (who might run against Wolf in 2018) and GOP Rep. Seth Grove, both from Wolf's home county (York), last week came out with a $3 billion tax "savings" list.

They stressed this is a bigger number than Wolf proposes in new taxes this year. That would be $2.7 billion.

See? A choice: Save $3 billion in tax money; or pay $2.7 billion more in taxes.

I'd only note the total "savings" offered and the total new taxes called for share exactly the same chance of happening, which (if you're new to the state) is zero.

There are ways to keep the state afloat without rocking boats, without increasing broad taxes on sales or income. That means more tobacco taxes, maybe more legalized gaming; so, basically, more of the same.

Unless, that is, our normal June gloom lifts and Wolf and legislative leaders head off to toast a bright new day over beers at some gas station.

baerj@phillynews.com