Governor Wolf evidently missed Civic Class on the days they discussed the separation of powers. In the past few weeks, lawmakers filled in those missed classes by delivering a few lessons of their own.
Last week, the House and Senate Republican majorities secured enough Democratic votes to send the governor a veto-proof Fiscal Code bill, a potential foreshadowing of the 2016-2017 budget process. In another lesson, both the House and Senate Environmental Resources & Energy Committees, with Republican and Democratic votes, recommended that the Independent Regulatory Review Commission (IRRC) not approve the Department of Environmental Protection’s "back door" attempt to enact oil and gas drilling regulations.
Additionally, Governor Wolf’s Budget Office called off its bid to silence an independent public pension oversight commission in the face of legal action by two Republican House members. Finally, a group of Democratic House members very publicly chastised the governor for interfering with the delivery of certain constituent services because they sided with the Republicans in completing the 2015-16 budget.
"It would seem the lone Wolf approach has peaked," said PMA President David N. Taylor. "There’s some hope now that we can return to a reasonable approach to governing."
The pressure of an upcoming election should reinforce the new-found bipartisan governing spirit in the General Assembly — especially as the governor keeps insisting on across-the-board tax increases. He doesn’t stand a chance of getting them.
"I wouldn’t rule out some minor taxes say on tobacco, that sort of thing," said G. Terry Madonna, Professor of Public Affairs and Director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College. "But there has never been a general tax increase in an election year."
Speaking at the PMA this past Monday, Republican Executive Director of the House Appropriations Committee, David Donley, said that the caucus would look at every possible way to not only restrain spending in the 2016-17 budget but to increase revenues without raising taxes.
"We will look again at liquor privatization, pension reform, and trying to limit increase in the entitlement programs," Donley said. "All of that has to be considered before we even think about a tax increase."
The veto-proof Fiscal Code bill, HB 1589, comes on the heels of another Fiscal Code bill, HB 1327, the governor vetoed in March. The Fiscal Code legislation complements the budget bill; it’s a directive for how money should be spent.
Among other provisions , the governor objected to HB 1327 because it would delay the state implementation of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. That provision was not included in HB 1589.
However, HB 1589 does include education-related provisions he objected to in HB 1327: a new basic education funding formula and the $2.5 billion "PlanCon" school construction reimbursement proposal.
Legislators of both parties joined the veto-proof majority after seeing a spreadsheet that showed how the governor planned to distribute the added $200 million for education in the bill. And how that distribution compares to the way the funding would be distributed under a new basic education funding formula. The spreadsheet showed that 428 school districts, including plenty of districts in Democratic areas, would get less money under the governor’s plan.
"The governor created his own politically driven plan that cut millions of dollars from rural and suburban districts and directs that money to his political allies," said Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre).
The House cleared HB 1589 on a 149-45 vote; the Senate 37-11. Both margins are enough to override a veto. In the House, Majority Leader Dave Reed (R-Indiana) said that he felt confident they would keep enough votes for an override, if one is needed.
Capping off another civics lesson, two Republican lawmakers have successfully used legal action to force the Wolf Administration’s Office of Budget to call off their effort to defund the Pennsylvania Employee Retirement Commission (PERC). Last week, the Governor’s office announced it would fund PERC and once again makes it independent.
Established in 1984, PERC reviews the actuarial health of the state’s municipal pension plans, and the two large state level plans, SERS for state workers, and PSERS for public school employees.
The two pension funds carry a combined unfunded liability of over $60 billion, and PERC late last year got in the middle of a fight over a bill designed to help rein in some costs in the systems. PERC reviewed the bill and announced that its purported impact on SERS and PSERS was off by at least $600 million. The governor then defunded the commission and moved its operations to the Budget Office.
The two Republican lawmakers, Reps. Steve Bloom (R-Cumberland) and Seth Grove (R-York), said that the governor’s actions were an attempt to circumvent the legislative authority the General Assembly and close PERC via an unconstitutional executive action.
"Gov. Tom Wolf now knows that he is not above the law and cannot simply abolish a statutorily created independent watchdog agency according to his own wishes," the lawmakers said in a statement. "His sudden recognition of our constitutionally enshrined separation of powers is surprising given his consistent and unilateral efforts to govern as the Commonwealth’s emperor, ruling by decree."
Separately, Bloom added that the governor’s unnecessarily confrontational style from the very beginning of his term is starting to alienate his own party, and, citing the Fiscal Code bill, is giving the General Assembly "functional governing power."
"He created a year of crisis," Bloom said. "He held vital human services hostage. I don’t think the Democrats are going to let that happen again."
On the oil and gas regulations, DEP defied the General Assembly on numerous fronts, including directly violating a 2014 law.
Rep. Martin Causer (R-Cameron) and other members of the committee said that DEP violated Act 126 of 2014, which required the development of separate regulations for the conventional and unconventional oil and gas industries. To comply with the law, DEP should have re-started the process. Instead, the agency made a clerical change and proceeded with the regulations.
"Requiring the smaller, conventional operators to follow regulations similar to large-scale unconventional operators is unnecessary from an environmental protection standpoint," Causer said. "It is also unaffordable, potentially costing thousands of people across northcentral Pennsylvania their livelihoods."
IRRC is scheduled to vote on the proposed rules on Thursday, April 21.
Finally, Some Democratic lawmakers who broke ranks and voted for a Republican-crafted state budget say the governor punished them by making it more difficult for them to solve basic constituent problems.
In a recent letter to the governor, eleven Democrats lawmakers said that their staffers were told by numerous state agencies they must go directly through the governor’s office for assistance. Prior to that, staff members worked directly with the agencies.
It’s all coming to a head not just in the General Assembly but with the voters as well. A recent Quinnipiac University Poll shows that 52 percent of Pennsylvania voters disapprove of the governor’s performance – a politically disastrous number.
No worries. With all this first-person experience, he’ll be more than qualified to teach high school civics when he leaves office.
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