opinion

Getting a new Pa. budget; or the art of driving with no hands

John Baer, STAFF COLUMNIST

Updated: Sunday, August 6, 2017, 12:01 PM

Very little changes under the Capitol dome in Harrisburg.

Among way too many news releases flooding my inbox, one last week caught my eye as a good summation of the budget process.

A release from Rep. Rosemary Brown (R., Monroe) carried this headline: “Brown Introduces Hands-Free Driving Legislation.”

Perfect. Let’s let everyone drive their vehicles the way lawmakers drive the budget – trying to steer with no hands.

Now, of course, Brown’s bill doesn’t call for that. It would ban using hand-held phones while driving (allowing hands-free devices such as Bluetooth). But the headline hit me as an apt description of policymaking in Pennsylvania.

As in, while Gov. Wolf (the invisible man) isn’t driving anything but his Jeep, the legislature careens along making policy “hands-free.”

Who knows where it’s going or who or what it hits en route?

More than a month past the budget deadline, lawmakers have no agreement on how to balance or pay for $32 billion in spending that started July 1.

This isn’t new. It’s Pennsylvania, where deadlines, duty, and constitutional requirements are regarded as mere suggestions.

Our budgets are late and unbalanced. Our debt rises, and we limp along with one of the worst credit ratings in the nation and no resources to fall back on.

Data released Friday by Pew shows us at the bottom of the states, down there with Arkansas and Louisiana, in terms of funds in reserve.

And our budget?

In limbo, waiting for the Republican House to act on or ignore a Republican Senate-passed revenue package with big borrowing and targeted taxes. When that happens is unclear; maybe by the end of the month, maybe after Labor Day.

Meanwhile, state Treasurer Joe Torsella just extended a $750 million line of credit to keep the state general fund from going dry.

This rewrites an idiom: It gives credit where credit isn’t due.

And the narrowly passed (26-24) Senate revenue plan rewrites legislative rules of the road. It’s interesting for its mix, and the fact it was supported by a bunch of suddenly relevant Democrats.

It includes a surprising $100 million severance tax (Wolf sought three times that) on gas drillers. That’s something GOP leaders opposed for years. In fact, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, two days before voting for the tax, said such a tax was off the table.

Hey, when you drive with no hands you tend to swerve.

Ah, but the tax also includes regulatory “reforms” favoring the gas industry that environmental groups oppose and that, almost surely, will lead to litigation.

The Senate plan also includes $400 million in taxes on everybody’s phone, electric, and gas bills. For that reason, Philly Sen. Art Haywood was one of just three Democrats voting against it, the only “no” vote from Philadelphia.

Haywood notes the energy industry is taxed $100 million while consumers are taxed $400 million and says, “I’m not in support of that ratio.”

He also says, “This is a Republican budget, reflecting Republican priorities.”

And yet, its biggest piece of new revenue is $1.3 billion in borrowing (which Republicans hate to do) against funds from the 1998 national tobacco settlement, which also could lead to litigation.

Wolf “generally supports” all this (reelection bids make people do strange things). But it has to get through the House, where leadership is known for opposing a severance tax, any new taxes, and most borrowing. So, you can see the problem.

The House could do something like the Senate with support from its own (maybe relevant) Democrats.

Or, according to Rep. Kate Harper (R., Montco), a 16-year House member who knows her caucus well, “I think we come back in September, and the House does something entirely different.”

I’m picturing turn signals activated with knees, because clearly nobody’s got their hands anywhere near the wheel.

John Baer, STAFF COLUMNIST

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