Mixed Ruling Empowers Taxpayers, Gives Governor Legal Loophole
HARRISBURG, July 9, 2019—Pennsylvania taxpayers have legal standing to challenge unconstitutional government action that has infected the Commonwealth’s budget process in recent years, according to a Commonwealth Court order issued last week. The ruling came in response to the lawsuit filed in 2017 by Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs president and CEO Matthew Brouillette, former Rep. Jim Christiana (R-Beaver), and Harrisburg-area small businessman Ben Lewis.
The ruling establishes that the state constitution does, in fact, impose a constraint upon the political branches during the budget process, and that the courts are responsible for determining when such constitutional violations occur. This suit sought to hold Gov. Wolf and the General Assembly accountable for enacting spending plans in successive fiscal years 2016-17 and 2017-18 that exceeded the Commonwealth’s revenues, in violation of the state constitution(Article VIII, Section 13), the Administrative Code, and Gov. Wolf’s own Office of the Budget.
While upholding taxpayer standing—an outcome that empowers average citizens with the ability to hold elected officials accountable for unconstitutional budgeting practices—the court nevertheless ruled Gov. Wolf can avoid legal accountability for unbalanced budgets by simply allowing them to become law without his signature, as he did in 2016 and 2017. Additionally, the court dismissed the challenge to the 2016-17 and 2017-18 budgets as moot as they have now expired, setting the stage for real-time litigation if and when lawmakers again pass spending plans without sufficient revenue.
“This ruling marks the first time the court has specifically confirmed Pennsylvania taxpayers have legal recourse to hold elected officials accountable for unconstitutional budget shenanigans,” commented Brouillette. “This changes the game for every state budget moving forward.”
Specifically, the court upheld standing for Brouillette and Lewis, while denying standing for Christiana on the grounds that at the time the lawsuit was filed he was a member of the General Assembly and lacked legislative standing.
Curiously, the court also ruled that by not actively signing the budget but rather withholding his signature and allowing the budget to become law, Gov. Wolf—and, it follows, all future governors—can avoid the statutory requirement to veto any spending that exceeds available revenue. According to the decision, the constitution only requires the governor to submit a budget proposal to the General Assembly, which must balance appropriations with revenue estimates.
“The court’s decision to give the governor an escape hatch from his fiscal responsibility is unfortunate and, frankly, puzzling,” Brouillette continued. “If the governor can avoid the requirements of the law by doing nothing, then the law is meaningless. Still, legislators should be on notice that the court clearly outlined how and when taxpayers can challenge future unconstitutional budgets, and we stand ready to do so should the General Assembly again pass a spending plan with no way to pay for it.”
- Court Order Upholding Standing, Dismissing Complaint
- Preliminary Objections
- Court Order Denying Mootness Request
- Petition for Review
- Description of Legal Counts
Matthew Brouillette is available for comment. Please contact Gina Diorio at [email protected] or 862-703-6670 to arrange an interview.