Baer: Pa.'s predictable budget process

Pennsylvania lawmakers are headed back to Harrisburg to pretend to care about your tax dollars and the state’s fiscal future.

They should be off on their usual, and sooo well-deserved, extended summer break.

Hey, when you’re in session 60 to 70 days each year, you need a couple of months just to recharge. How do you think they maintain such high-performance levels?

Ah, but now, having delivered to Democratic Gov. Wolf a $32 billion spending package for the fiscal year starting last week, the GOP-controlled crowd needs to figure how to pay for its plan. So, its vacay’s delayed.

Oh, the suspense. Where to find $2 billion-plus to fill budget holes and fix deficits? Whatever shall we do?

New taxes? Republicans don’t want that. Deep cuts in services? Wolf won’t have that. Borrow ourselves into oblivion? Republicans oppose big borrowing, don’t they? And Wolf demands “long-term financial stability.”

I, for one, can’t imagine higher drama than all 253 members of the largest full-time legislature in America dragged away from summer fun just to do their jobs.

I also can’t shake that picture of neighboring Gov. Christie sitting on a shutdown beach, symbolizing what too much of public service has become: me first.

An example of which appears in the Pennsylvania spending plan.

As lawmakers face wrenching fiscal decisions, they somehow found it in their hearts to increase spending for their own care and feeding by $13 million, a 5 percent bump to $325 million.

A careful Doylestown reader wrote to ask, “Can you please explain what this money is for and why they need this pot of money?”

I responded: “This money is for anything they want…and they don’t need it.”

Perhaps I should note, in case you and your family aren’t riveted to the details of the annual budget process, there’s actually very little suspense.

Instead, there’s political predictability that Pennsylvania is famous for — work the edges of budgetary needs with a little more here and little less there, avoid tough decisions, innovations, or political reforms, and claim victory for the people.

So, with bipartisan support, lawmakers sent Wolf a spending plan they tout as well-crafted and responsible. And Wolf welcomed it with open arms as a product of “our efforts to make government more efficient and responsive.”

Glory, alleluia.

But great strides for a great state? Don’t count on it.

Better to expect a final product that underscores the low expectations we’ve come to expect from Harrisburg: essentially a maintenance document for a state routinely ranked among the worst-run, with low job-creation numbers, mediocre health rankings, vast educational inequities, a higher unemployment rate than all but four other states, and the only Northeastern state except New Hampshire that hasn’t raised its minimum wage.

The new budget is expected to be funded with new gambling revenue, new booze licenses (because who can ever get enough gaming and alcohol?), and new borrowing that we all will gladly pay back later.

And after about a half-dozen or so legislative leaders decide the details, while the 240-plus other members mostly collect per diem expenses and pretend they have a say in the process, we’ll be treated to that smiling moment of a budget signing when we’re told about a government that’s working for us all.

In truth, it’s a government that builds budgets and policies aimed first at reelection, that pushes problems into the future, that maintains just enough piecemeal progress to prevent closer public scrutiny or electoral revolt.

So, predictably, we are where we were last year, and likely where we’ll be next year.

Unless, of course, President Trump’s new health care and tax reforms spur the economy, kick-start our state, and make us all sick of winning.

Care to bet on that one?