The final pieces of legislation ending Pennsylvania’s longest budget stalemate fell into place just days before the April primary election. And the story that dominated state news for over nine months had no apparent impact on voters who meted out no electoral punishment for the fiscal fray that had school districts on the cusp of closing, nonprofits cutting services, and politicians at each other’s throats.
This budget stand-off was different from those that took place during the Rendell era notably due to the lack of public pressure placed on Governor Wolf and the legislature. There were no daily protests on the capitol steps. State employees did not go without pay. When the battle commenced last summer Governor Wolf’s first salvo was an attack ad campaign. It fell flat. Outside the halls of state government and the few remaining news media that cover it the budget battle went largely unnoticed.
Despite Governor Wolf’s threats of electoral retribution, lawmakers did not pay a political price for engaging in the budget battle. The first clue that the fiscal free-for-all was not impacting the electorate came in February when there was no wave of candidates filing to oppose incumbent legislators. Looking at the primary election results it would be difficult if not impossible to point to a single lawmaker who lost his or her seat because of the sustained budget stand-off.
In fact few lawmakers lost for any reason. And those that did lose were a result of local political divisions rather than anything that happened in Harrisburg. In Philadelphia, for example, Democrats engaged in their biannual exercise of primary fratricide. The state’s longest serving House member – State Representative Mark Cohen – was defeated by a challenger who claimed he had been in office too long and was out of touch with his constituents.
Another rare defeat of a House incumbent took place in Lackawanna County where State Representative Frank Farina lost to former legislator Kevin Haggerty. The two former colleagues found their districts merged in redistricting a couple of years ago and have been battling over the seat ever since.
While voters were busy returning incumbents to office some lawmakers even got a promotion. State Representative Mike Regan ran for and won the Republican nomination to replace outgoing state Senator Pat Vance in Cumberland County. In what was a hard fought and nasty campaign the budget crisis did not register as a key issue.
For Republicans looking to hold onto historic majorities in both the Senate and the House the future looks bright. Senate Republicans could actually achieve a veto proof majority as the fall battles will be fought over swing seats currently occupied by Democrats. On the House side, the primary yielded solid GOP nominees for open seats like Dawn Keefer in Cumberland County and Frank Ryan in Lebanon County. Conversely, Democratic retirements in western Pennsylvania provide the opportunity for additional Republican pick-ups in an area already trending toward the GOP.
Further evidence of the impotence of the state budget battle on the electoral process can be found in the race for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate. Governor Wolf’s first chief of staff, Katie McGinty, was one of the prime architects of the budget proposal that triggered the lengthy stand-off. She resigned last summer to run for the U.S. Senate and prevailed against three opponents in the primary.
Why did the epic budget battle fall so flat with voters? Chalk it up to a lack of attention being focused on state government. Or the fact the absence of a state budget had little impact on the daily lives of Pennsylvanians. Timing was also a factor. With the nation transfixed by the presidential race scant coverage has been afford other matters.
And so we find ourselves back to where we began. Another budget season is underway in Harrisburg. Governor Wolf is pushing for more spending and higher taxes, Republicans are adamant in their refusal. The fight will continue, apparently without consequence for anyone involved.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected].)
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