Budget Follies Set to Resume

Member Group : Lincoln Institute

The last time a Pennsylvania Governor signed a state budget into law was nearly four years ago on July 10, 2014. Governor Tom Corbett signed off on the state’s fiscal plan just days after it was approved by the state legislature completing a four year run of on-time state budgets.

Nearing the end of his four year term Governor Tom Wolf has yet to experience the official signing of a state budget. And residents of Penn’s Woods have not had the luxury of an on-time state budget since Corbett put pen to paper. Instead, budget battles have consumed state government ending with budgets becoming law without the governor’s signature.

It should be noted governors have three options after legislation is passed by the General Assembly. The governor can veto the bill, killing it unless his veto is over-ridden by a two-thirds majority in both chambers; sign the bill into law; or take no action allowing the bill to become law after the passage of ten days.

The latter is how Governor Wolf has chosen to respond to all three budgets passed during his tenure. It has been part politics, part petulance. Wolf has crafted a national reputation for advocating massive increases in taxes and spending. Signing the more prudent budgets offered by the Republican-controlled legislature does not feed that image. Wolf has also behaved like the college professor he once was, annoyed at the assignment turned in for grading.

Divided government is at the root of Pennsylvania’s ongoing budget drama. In 2014 Wolf accomplished an historic first by defeating an incumbent governor seeking re-election. But, while voters were busy dispensing with Tom Corbett they also elected near-record Republican majorities to both the state Senate and state House. Republicans added significantly to their numbers again in 2016.

Due to the nature of the 2014 Democratic primary, Wolf moved to the far Left to out-maneuver his opponents, then proceeded to attempt to govern in that fashion. Meanwhile, the Republican caucuses in the General Assembly have grown significantly more conservative as the GOP made gains in conservative-leaning western Pennsylvania while losing seats in the more moderate Philadelphia suburbs.

All of this set the stage for the budget impasses to come. Governor Wolf played a major role in creating gridlock by proposing that his very first budget increase taxes by an amount greater than the combined total of proposed tax hikes in all 49 other states combined. Republicans recoiled at the prospect and thus ensued the longest budget stalemate in state history.

In 2016, worn out by the extended fighting over the 2015 budget, Republicans caved into many of the governor’s spending demands, but not enough to merit his gold star of approval. The budget wars resumed again last year, resulting in the unusual passage of a spending plan in July, but no revenue plan was adopted to complete the budget until October.

And now it is time to start all over again. Against the backdrop of a gubernatorial election year with Republicans gunning to make Tom Wolf the second one-term governor in a row, the budget process is now underway.

There are, of course, political implications. The Governor will again push for the Holy Grail of a severance tax on natural gas drillers sought by Democrats and apostate Republicans. But legislative Republicans, who saw their numbers increase when they stood firm against the governor’s tax and spend agenda, will want to appeal to their base by again keeping the governor in check.

The first clue as to how pitched the battle might be will come early next month when Governor Wolf delivers his budget address to a joint session of the General Assembly. The question is: which Wolf will show up? The Tom Wolf of 2015 who demanded record increases in taxes and spending; the lecturing Tom Wolf of 2016 who scolded the legislature for not giving him his way; or the more subdued Tom Wolf of 2017 �“ still determined, but not as aggressive?

Then as the process continues with legislative hearings and interest groups weighing in to secure their part of the public wealth the political campaigns will unfold putting on additional pressure. Unlike 2016, when the presidential race dominated public attention, 2018’s gubernatorial race will put the state budget in the spotlight.

It will be interesting to see whether or not Governor Wolf gets to experience the thrill of signing a budget, or whether he goes down in state history as the first governor never to sign one.

(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].)

Permission to reprint is granted provided author and affiliation are cited.