‘Defining Moment’: GOP performance in budget debate will determine viability in governor’s race

Member Group : Lincoln Institute

We the people of Penn’s woods will elect a new governor in November of next year. That is when the official voting will take place. But, the outcome of that election – as well as control of the state House of Representatives – may well be decided early this summer.

Republicans are currently wandering in the wilderness of state government. The lone remaining bastion of GOP control is the state Senate, with both the state House and the Governor’s office under Democratic control. The seeds of Republic exile were sewn during Governor Ed Rendell’s first term when, with few exceptions, Republicans went simply went along with the governor’s tax, spend and borrow agenda.

It is that go along to get along philosophy that has crippled the Republican Party. During the early years of the Rendell Administration Republicans actually controlled both houses of the General Assembly, but either caved in or became fiscal co-conspirators in passing budgets that bloated state government and drove the commonwealth deeply into debt. Their big mis-step was going along with the now infamous middle-of-the-night pay raise in 2005. GOP voters at the grassroots revolted. Top senate leaders were defeated in primaries, and in the House former Speaker John Perzel fell from grace and is now a back bencher.

This happened because voters, particularly the Republican Party’s base, no longer saw a difference in Harrisburg between Republicans and Democrats. The legislature morphed into one giant incumbent party that grassroots Republican voters no longer deemed worthy of their votes and support. As a result, Democrats took control of the state House rendering the GOP an impotent minority.

With new leaders at the helm legislative Republicans toughened up the rhetoric. They have also been successful the last couple of years in preventing Governor Rendell from implementing his repeated proposals for new taxes and increases on existing ones. However, the GOP did not learn its lesson on spending and has caved into the governor’s spending demands.

Continually raising spending without raising taxes is not a practice that can go on indefinitely, and the crunch has come. The commonwealth will end the current fiscal year on June 30th close to $3 billion in deficit. Then there is the task of forming and approving a new budget for the 2009-2010 fiscal year. And, despite the state’s desperate financial conditions, Governor Rendell has again proposed a massive increase in spending.

But in adversity there is opportunity. Legislative leaders have before them a chance to reclaim the Republican Party’s brand as the party of fiscal responsibility, or they can again cave into the governor’s big spending ways and reinforce the current perception of the GOP as nothing more than Democrat lite. The rhetoric so far is encouraging. Early in the budgeting process, Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati (R-Jefferson), who also serves as Lt. Governor, flatly ruled out any tax increase. Speaking last week to the Pennsylvania Press Club, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jake Corman (R-Center) termed the governor’s spending agenda "budgetary malpractice."

This week Senate Republicans put on the table their own budget proposal. It is one that calls for no new taxes and curbs state spending to bring the budget back into balance. There is a lot of pain in the Republican budget, but absent are the usual gimmicks used to make bad budgets look good. With this proposal the Senate GOP has drawn a line in the sand. "I believe this is a defining moment," said state Senator Jane Orie (R-Allegheny).

Thus the current crop of GOP leadership appears poised to dig in on taxes and spending. If they follow their rhetoric with action they will simultaneously put Pennsylvania back on the path toward fiscal health, and revive the Republican Party’s brand on the eve of major statewide elections. By finally standing up to Ed Rendell on both taxes and spending legislative Republicans will distinguish themselves in the eyes of the electorate and draw a bold contrast between the parties giving voters a real choice for the first time in years.

Although names like Tom Corbett, Pat Meehan and Jim Gerlach will be on the ballot for governor, it will be leaders by the names of Scarnati, Corman, Smith and Turzai who will determine whether or not their party actually has a chance of reclaiming control of the governor’s mansion – and the state House – in 2010.

(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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