Has Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled legislature slipped into in a nether world where it no longer is required to balance the state budget? That could explain some of its lazy ideas to close a $1.5 billion deficit.
Maybe lawmakers had already checked out when they suggested the state borrow its way out of the shortfall. Were they even thinking about the consequences once the state starts paying back the money with interest? Or how debt service would suck the wind out of other services?
They must have been in another world when they suggested putting video gambling terminals in corner bars. Did they forget people don’t make good decisions about money when they’re drinking? Legislators argued convenience gambling would help mom-and-pop bars survive. They didn’t consider the impact on neighborhoods with moms and pops who gamble away their rent checks at the taprooms.
Auditor General Eugene DiPasquale has suggested legalizing recreational marijuana and taxing it to raise $200 million. But it appears the legislature already is on something that clouds minds. It must face the reality that there are only a few ways to balance the projected $32.2 billion budget by the June 30 deadline. It can cut services, raise taxes, or a combination of the two.
That’s what Gov. Wolf did in his proposed budget. It would consolidate programs to save $2 billion and impose a 6.5 percent severance tax on natural gas drillers to raise almost $300 million. Pennsylvania is the only major gas state that doesn’t tax drilling.
Wolf also would raise $1 billion by closing special-interest loopholes like the tax breaks on commercial storage facilities, some insurance companies, software, and prepared foods sold to airlines. He would raise the minimum wage from a ridiculous $7.25 an hour to $12, which could produce another $145 million in revenue and savings.
The governor’s proposals are solid, but the legislature’s Republican majority is snickering at them.
The House passed a spending plan in April, but that didn’t generate Senate action because Republicans in the two houses can’t even make a deal with each other, never mind with the Democratic governor.
With days to go before the budget deadline, the legislature hasn’t offered one honest idea; not even to spend within what the Republicans and their special-interest buddies think are the state’s means. They don’t want to slash more services because they would have to admit to angry constituents that they don’t care if parks open in the summer or main roads are plowed in the winter.
Lawmakers could raise revenue by increasing the income and sales taxes. Or they could tax their campaign sugar daddies in the shale industry. But they can’t pretend that they can ignore reality.
Pennsylvania has endured so many budget gimmicks that it is fast headed toward a fiscal nightmare. Just two years of political gridlock has left Illinois a failed state with almost $15 billion in unpaid bills.
Pennsylvania doesn’t have to suffer a similar fate. But it will if the Republicans don’t wake up and get to work on a realistic budget that’s balanced with recurring revenue. After all, that’s the obligation to the people they swore they would honor after being elected.