Less howling helped Wolf with legislature, but PA budget fight needs his bark

Pennsylvania Budget
Gov. Wolf spoke to reporters after allowing an unfunded $32 billion budget become law without his signature.

The lack of effective political leadership is failing America at virtually every level of government. While the egotistical bombast of President Trump commands the most attention, not enough is directed at the local and state levels, which have far more direct control on the everyday lives of all of us.

Pennsylvania has become an impoverished beggar that must borrow money to pay its bills. Yet its elected leaders, from the Governor’s Office to both chambers of the legislature, take a leisurely pace to solving the problem. Required to pass a budget by June 30, they passed a $32 billion spending plan, but for the third year didn’t include how to pay for it.

How can that even be legal? Is it really a budget if the spending plan does not include the money to fund it? If the courts have not been asked to answer that question, they should be. There should be no more repeats of this farce that threatens schools, hospitals, and other agencies that depend on state funding to survive.

A $750 million short-term loan from the state Treasury taken to keep the state general fund from going into the red must be paid back by Wednesday. But State Treasurer Joe Torsella says the state will likely run out of money again later this month. Citing his fiduciary responsibility, he warned that another loan from the Treasury won’t be automatic.

“It should not be assumed that the Treasury will continue to backstop the general fund unless a responsible revenue package is enacted to balance the budget, or underlying financial conditions improve,” said Torsella. He’s doing his job. It’s time for the rest of the state’s elected representatives to do theirs.

But the people of Pennsylvania have a job, too.

Harrisburg blithely takes a summer vacation when it should be working on a budget solution because it feels no pressure to do otherwise. Legislators who have no fear of not being reelected need to know from their constituents that they are tired of budget gimmicks and gambling. The harder job is to create a tax structure that pays the state’s bills by charging more to those who can pay more, including the gas fracking industry.

That won’t happen without leadership from the highest level. Gov. Wolf was criticized during his first two years in office for being too rigid. His poll numbers dropped as a result, so he changed his style. Rather than continually butt heads with obstinate Republican lawmakers, Wolf allowed the state’s last three budgets to become law without his signature.

That less combative style improved Wolf’s poll numbers as he campaigns for next year’s election. But less combative doesn’t have to mean submissive.

With his Democratic Party in the minority in Harrisburg, and Republican House Speaker Mike Turzai vying for his job, Wolf is in a tough spot. But he must defend the public’s best interest when a budget solution is finally crafted. Do that, and it will be easier for him to win the support from voters he seeks.