Pa. House Speaker Mike Turzai's big budget gamble

Pennsylvania Governor Turzai
House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) is taking a political gamble that could set back budget negotiations for weeks, if not months. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

HARRISBURG — Republican House Speaker Mike Turzai, perhaps the most powerful person in the state Capitol these days, left a high-powered meeting last week amid the state’s tense budget impasse looking unruffled.

“We had a very positive discussion,” he said before striding down a steep flight of stairs toward his office.

Turns out, he was the only one in the room who felt that way.

Turzai, a fiscal conservative with ambitions to be Pennsylvania’s next governor, has in the space of the last week upended an already fraught budget process. He pushed a no-new-tax approach that relies on borrowing and siphoning money from funds that subsidize everything from mass transit to 911 call centers.

House Republicans debated his proposal during a rough, four-hour caucus Saturday. But in the end, it never left the room, let alone went to a committee or a floor vote.

Instead, Turzai sent members home a day early and announced that the House would wait to see what revenue proposals come from the governor or the Senate.

His actions could set back negotiations by weeks, if not months, on nailing down a fiscal blueprint that is yet again painfully, embarrassingly, well past its due date, according to interviews with nearly a dozen Republicans and Democrats involved in the talks.

All day, eyes had been on him to see if his eleventh-hour push to become the “closer” on a budget deal would pay off or possibly lead to a repeat of the state’s historic and chaotic impasse of 2015.

“I think he’s in a box now,” said Rep. John Taylor, a moderate Republican from Philadelphia. “I don’t know what the endgame is. But if I were him, I wouldn’t take this all-or-nothing approach.”

Turzai declined to be interviewed for this story.

Pennsylvania’s fiscal situation is precarious. The GOP-dominated legislature, including Turzai, voted for a nearly $32 billion spending plan just hours before the July 1 start of the new fiscal year. It did so without having an agreed-to plan to pay for it, nor a way to close a gaping $1.5 billion shortfall in last fiscal year’s budget and a projected $700 million deficit in this one.

House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin said in an interview Friday that Turzai has been consistent: He doesn’t want to raise taxes. He took a lead role in talks, Miskin said, because he didn’t like the direction in which they were heading.

“Every time we brought revenue options to the governor, he rejected each and every one of them and countered with taxes, then more taxes, and then additional taxes,” said Miskin. “That’s not where the House Republican majority is.”

Still, few can figure out why Turzai decided to muscle his way into negotiations, which up until last week had been led by House Majority Leader Dave Reed (R., Indiana), a more moderate Republican by all accounts. Reed has since been sidelined, leading to whispers of bad blood and tension, real or imagined.

For his part, Reed has walked a fine line in his public comments. Last week, he called Turzai’s counterproposal for a budget “coherent,” but never gave it a full-throated endorsement.

“We will see whether that gets us over the goal line or not,” was all he would say.

It was a high-stakes gamble.

This weekend, Turzai called the House into a rare, midsummer weekend session to try to persuade the large but ideologically diverse ranks of Republicans, who hold a commanding majority, to vote for his plan.

The solution he came up with left many negotiators wringing their hands: No new taxes. Borrow to help close a budget shortfall. And raid a list of special funds that help pay for things like recycling, highway beautification, and farmland preservation.

Though some of those ideas were in the mix before Turzai took over as a lead negotiator, legislative leaders were also looking for more reliable ways to raise new dollars, including new taxes and expanded gambling.

Turzai’s proposal is unpopular with some Republicans, who privately acknowledge that the legislature’s refusal to raise taxes for much of the last decade, even as expenses rose, has kept the state in a precarious financial position.

Those close to the speaker mistakenly thought he had a fighting shot at getting his way.

“How do you get them to vote it? You tell them the alternative is to vote for tax increases,” said one political insider and Turzai supporter who was not authorized to speak publicly.

“It’s like, How do I get my child to eat liver? You tell him the other option is to eat a dog sh– sandwich,” the supporter said. “And if they want to go ahead and pass a tax increase, we will notify their next of kin to come pick up their political corpses, because next year is an election year.”

It will be an election year for Turzai too — and not necessarily for his current seat.

Turzai, 57, has told political leaders around the state that he’s seriously considering a run for the Republican nomination to challenge Gov. Wolf next year.

Many in both Democratic and Republican political circles think he won’t do it, just as he decided to forgo a run for Congress in 2012 after toying with the idea for months.

That, they say, sums up Turzai neatly: mercurial and sometimes erratic behind the scenes, but relentlessly on-message when in public.

A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter who spent months embedded with Turzai during one of his first campaigns for office described him as “squeaky-clean” and religious, but also as intense, emotional, and quick-tempered.

That juxtaposition was in full display during his unsuccessful run in 1998 against Democratic incumbent Ron Klink in the Fourth District race for Congress, a race marred by mistakes and risky political choices.

At the time, Turzai was a young lawyer specializing in insurance cases and running as a conservative, antiabortion Republican. He had been a councilman for Bradford Woods, a suburban community about a half-hour north of Pittsburgh.

Weeks before the election, two Turzai campaign workers, looking to get footage of Klink scowling for TV ads, scuffled with Klink and a staffer outside a social club. It backfired. Klink’s campaign accused the men of ambushing the congressman about a possible affair, a move criticized as dirty politics.

Soon after, it was revealed that Turzai’s media adviser had hired a helicopter — the same one used by a local television station — to hover over Klink’s 7,000-square-foot home and shoot video footage.

When Election Day rolled around, Klink took 64 percent of the vote.

That bruising campaign set in motion a series of political dominoes that led to Turzai’s entry into state politics. He joined the House in 2001; rose to majority leader in 2011, aided by an influx of more conservative legislators; and became speaker in 2015.

As a leader, he’s been praised for his work ethic, command of details, and ability to manage his caucus’ right wing.

Still, in 2015, Wolf’s first year in office, Turzai was widely blamed for blowing up budget talks two days before Christmas, further prolonging an impasse that left counties, schools, and social-service nonprofits in the lurch.

“This feels a lot like December 23, 2015,” Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky (D., Delaware) said Friday. “Because in a five-party negotiation, it appears to me that there is one outlier — and it is yet again the speaker of the House.”

Krueger-Braneky and other rank-and-file members said they didn’t know why they were being called in on a weekend to vote on a package few knew anything about.

House Democrats said they were never given any draft bills or written proposals to debate Saturday.

The House is not scheduled to be in session this week but remains on call. GOP officials said many members will start leaving for planned summer vacations or out-of-town events. That includes Turzai, who’s scheduled to be in Atlanta on Monday for an event organized by a national committee Turzai chairs that’s dedicated to electing more Republican state legislators.

Some wondered why Turzai even took the risk of pitching the plan, given there was no guarantee the GOP-controlled Senate, let alone Wolf, would accept it.

“It’s like they’re ignoring the fact that they have to have [Wolf’s] agreement on this,” said Taylor, the Philadelphia legislator.

Of Turzai’s motives, he said: “The only answer I can come up with is that he can at least show that he pulled out all the stops. … But for all I know, he may really believe he can do this.”