Kate Harper is not happy.
Not with the legislature. Not with its leaders. Not with Gov. Wolf. Not with me.
So I get this long email, subject-lined, “You missed the story.”
It came after I suggested lawmakers put rubber bands on their wrists and keep snapping them until they snap out of their deep dysfunction.
“I don’t normally reply to your columns,” wrote Harper, “feeling that beating up HBG politicians is part of your shtick, so I take it. But today’s column misses the real Pa. budget story.”
Harper is a Montgomery County House Republican, a 17-year incumbent, previously a decade-plus Lower Gwynedd Township supervisor, so she knows things about government.
She’s also a feisty, respected, savvy lawyer with a track record of pushing sensible policies, especially on environment and infrastructure.
“You lump all of us legislators together,” she wrote, “You never mention that your readers’ own legislators, with some notable exceptions, actually voted ‘no’ on the House leaders’ budget proposal because we were looking out for them.”
She’s referring to the Sept. 13 House-passed budget with no new taxes but lots of money siphoned from environmental, transportation and other dedicated trust funds.
Harper and most southeasterners (from both parties) voted against it. The trusts, some approved by voter referendum, help pay for services critical to the Philly region, including SEPTA.
Last week, the GOP Senate overwhelmingly voted down the House budget, 43-7. This after the House rejected a Senate-passed plan with new taxes on natural gas and consumers supported by Wolf.
It’s Harrisburg political ping pong.
The budget was due June 30. It’s still unresolved. The state is running out of money. Its credit rating is downgraded. Wolf held up $1 billion-plus in due bills, mentioned taking “further steps” — though a question on what “further steps” might include went unanswered.
Why are we where we are?
A split GOP and politics, which Harper candidly riffed on for the record: “How about noting no leader wants to be blamed for raising taxes because leaders in both houses are ambitiously running for governor (Sen. Scott Wagner is; House Speaker Mike Turzai talks about it), and the governor, who doesn’t appear to even like the job he’s got, is running for reelection.
“So while 13 million Pennsylvanians wait, Gov. Wolf creates a fake deadline and crisis … the Senate sends over a budget funded by a very weak severance tax and higher taxes on consumers of natural gas and cable TV which they know will not pass the House. Then the House raids tax trust funds raised and supported by its own legislators and decries the `spending problem.’ ”
She then noted nearly 90 percent of spending is locked into annually increasing costs in education, human services (especially Medicaid and nursing home care) and criminal justice.
“Do we have to raise taxes?” she asked, “Well, if the economy improves significantly and we get more sales and income tax revenues we might be able to make it, but that has not been true since 2009. Why don’t you write about that?”
And I wrote her back, saying my “shtick” is really about the process and the system corrupted by a culture that refuses to reform fundamentals to make it better: campaign finance, incumbent protection, gerrymandering, voter reforms, election of judges, a real budget deadline with no pay for lawmakers or the executive branch if not met, etc.
She replied, “OK, fair comment. But you have been around long enough to know politics is a team sport and if you criticize your own team, there are consequences. Ya gotta pick your spots, and this time we did — the southeast Republicans met with the leaders but they refused to budge.”
Which is why, I wrote back, we need a coup to rattle the cage, change the field and so on.
She replied: “And this budget has made me so angry you are likely to see that! Stay tuned.”
I will, Rep. Harper. I will.