Imagine if you will that your boss had given you three tasks of significant importance to your place of employment and that you had failed to get those tasks done in a timely manner. Now, imagine that – having failed to complete your assignments – you told your boss you were leaving on vacation and that those jobs would have to wait until your return.
How long do you think you would remain employed?
That is exactly what the Pennsylvania General Assembly has done.
The legislature does deserve credit for having passed the 2013-2014 fiscal year budget on time. Although they should not pat themselves on the back too much for this is a constitutional requirement and the minimum taxpayers should expect. However, for eight years under former Governor Ed Rendell budgets weren’t done on time, so kudos to all involved for the timely approval of the budget and – more significantly – the passage of the third budget in a row that does not increase taxes.
That having been said, the budget was not and is not the big ticket item this year. For years we have been told Pennsylvania’s roads and bridges have deteriorated to crisis status and steps must be taken to address the problem before potholes gobble up small vehicles and bridges crash into rivers. A major transportation bill bogged down in the house, which has adjourned for "summer recess" without completing action on the legislation.
Privatizing Pennsylvania’s Soviet-era system of selling wine and spirits is a top priority of both Governor Tom Corbett and House Majority Leader Mike Turzai. The house got the job done, the legislation bogged down in the senate, which has adjourned for "summer recess" without completing action on the legislation.
Making matters even worse is the failure of the General Assembly to deal with the state’s pending pension crisis which threatens to swamp not only the state budget, but school district and municipal budgets throughout the land with billions of dollars in unfunded debt and obligations. Legislation to begin addressing the pension crisis bogged down and both houses have adjourned for "summer recess" without completing action on the legislation.
While the state constitution required the adoption of a new fiscal year budget by June 30th, nothing requires the General Assembly to recess on July 1st. The recess is an artificial construct. Most years, the lengthy recess does not matter. This year, however, with issues of great significance left unresolved, the recess is irresponsible.
As of right now, Pennsylvania’s supposedly "full time" legislature – one of the highest paid and most expensive legislative bodies in the nation – will "recess" until mid-to-late September. To be fair, it won’t be all fun-in-the sun for lawmakers. The more diligent will hold town meetings, meet with constituents and attend committee hearings. But, there will be no session in which actual laws are passed.
Some legislative leaders are already saying that there is plenty of time, that we are only a quarter of the way through a two year session. But such an argument omits political reality. The political reality is that when the legislature returns in September the 2014 election season will be getting underway. The entire house and half of the senate must stand for election in 2014. That means few lawmakers will be willing to cast tough votes just months before potential challengers begin circulating their nominating petitions.
There may be a short window of opportunity, perhaps until Thanksgiving. But when the General Assembly adjourns for its holiday recess the chance of any significant, groundbreaking legislation passing thereafter will go up the chimney with Santa Claus. The political reality is Pennsylvania’s legislative sessions have a six to eleven month lifespan and no longer.
The failure to act now is especially damaging to transportation. Even if more money is allocated to fixing roads and bridges the orange cones don’t go up immediately. Projects must be designed, bids must be let; time is required to get even "shovel ready" projects moving. By waiting until fall the legislature is essentially writing off the 2014 summer construction season.
Everybody deserves a break, but ten or more weeks out of session is a dereliction of duty. Many residents of Penn’s Woods have had to work longer hours or more jobs in order to make ends meet during the current Great Recession. Watching their lawmakers leave town without getting the job done further diminishes the standing of state government in the eyes of we the voters.
(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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