opinion

Harrisburg's race to irrelevancy

John Baer, STAFF COLUMNIST

Updated: Wednesday, July 26, 2017, 6:00 AM

Shown is the Pennsylvania Capitol building in Harrisburg.

After a while – and by “a while,” I mean decades – you’ve got to wonder why we need a state legislature.

Here we are (again) awaiting some action on a constitutionally mandated annual balanced state budget that’s (again) overdue and will be, I guarantee, nowhere near balanced when finally done.

See, balanced means no debt. We have debt like Noah had rain.

But even if somebody strapped on the cojones to litigate the offense, no state court would rule against the legislature (and complicit governors) for their unconstitutional ways, since the legislature approves court budgets.

Then, you might ask, why do we need a state budget?

We didn’t have one for nearly nine months in 2015-16. We don’t have one now.

But tax revenues still come in, state services and benefits continue, employees get paid, lawmakers get paid (though they shouldn’t), state parks are open, etc.

The most evident downside is lower bond ratings, which means more debt, but since neither the legislature nor complicit governors seem to care much about debt …well, you get the idea.

And yet, annual budget battles rage in the Capital City, consume the attention of lawmakers, and serve as cover for not enacting needed reforms to improve the process.

Speaking of which, let’s see where the process stands.

As a reminder, the legislature half-passed a budget June 30 (you can drop the “p” for greater accuracy) and Gov. Wolf, for reasons only he and tarot cards know, let it become law with no way to pay for it.

Since then, the Republican House blames the Republican Senate. The Republican Senate blames the Republican House. And two announced Republican candidates seeking to oppose Wolf next year ask, “Where’s Wolf?” — which strikes me as wordplay suggesting werewolf.

(This is ironic given my view, to be expressed shortly.)

Now, the state House is MIA after coming in for a one-day session Saturday to do nothing – except, of course, collect per diem expenses (no receipts required, thank you very much).

House Speaker Mike Turzai then left for a four-day meeting in Atlanta of the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee, a national group “dedicated exclusively to electing more Republicans to state legislatures.”
Turzai went because he’s current chairman of the group and, I imagine, to demonstrate his first priority is what’s best for the people of Pennsylvania.

Back home, the Senate, a.k.a. the Pennsylvania legislature’s less crazy chamber, is scheduled back in session Wednesday and Thursday, probably to pass some sort of revenue legislation that the House won’t like.

Meanwhile, a resolution to the budget “crisis” is being publicly pushed and urged by Wolf with all the ferocity of Little Bo Peep.

Asked during a Pittsburgh radio station interview Tuesday about the budget progress, Wolf said: “I’m hoping to get good news.”

This either could mean he’s hoping his Powerball numbers hit. Or that Turzai stays in Georgia.

Wolf, to his credit, canceled a planned trip to a four-day National Governors Association meeting last week in Rhode Island, and a planned vacation to Quebec.

(He probably thought of the legislature and said, “Thanks, ya hosers!”)

All this degradation of democracy, dereliction of duty, and abandonment of fiscal and constitutional responsibility could be avoided.

Enact, with monetary penalties, timelines for House and Senate action on budget bills. Don’t pay lawmakers’ (or executive office) salaries or expenses during any budget impasse exceeding the June 30 fiscal-year deadline. And don’t pay them retroactively once a budget is done.

Wishful thinking, I know.

But you’d think at some point some collection of public servants, regardless of party, would come together, say enough is enough, and restore at least a measure of confidence in government, and relevancy to Harrisburg.

John Baer, STAFF COLUMNIST

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