Once upon a time in the woods of Penn the benevolent overseer of the land wished to bestow upon his subjects many favors. Believing in the superior wisdom of his court he set out to do away with the evil forces that allowed some to rise above others. To do so he needed more treasure, so he pledged to take from the rich and give to the poor. But alas, he soon found there were not enough rich to supply the bounty he promised, so he began taking even from the hard working peasants.
And a great sadness descended upon the land. The benevolent overseer stroked his beard and decreed his populace suffering from a lack of self-esteem. If only his subjects would think more highly of themselves they would gladly offer up more taxes to the kingdom. But, upon finding they too would have to render unto the overseer part of their own meager fortune a great restlessness occurred among the masses.
Seeing this, the knights of the legislature sprang into action and vowed to lead the people to the land of lower taxes and less government. They promised easier access to wine and liquor to restore the kingdom’s sagging spirits. And they vowed the government would get out of the way and let people work hard and keep more of their shekels for their own families.
Thus did a great battle take shape over the destiny of kingdom. I will lead you to the land of glittering rainbows and prancing unicorns, claimed the benevolent overseer. We love you, shouted the scribes and town criers! We can’t afford it wailed the wage earners. We will come to your rescue pledged the knights of the legislature!
And the fight commenced.
Governor Tom Wolf has put his first budget on the table. It is a complete redesign of the state’s tax paradigm, with the end result being a $4.6 billion increase in state spending. He calls his budget progressive and a fresh start for Pennsylvania. Republicans who control both houses of the General Assembly call it dead on arrival. Many adjectives have been used by the media to describe the spending plan. I like the term: fairy tale.
It is a fairy tale because Governor Wolf’s proposals completely ignore the reality of the political situation in Harrisburg. Even with complete control of the governor’s office and the legislature Republicans were unable to come to grips with pension reform, liquor privatization and a systemic budget deficit. As a result of last November’s election, the General Assembly has become more Republican and more conservative and the Governor’s office has been transformed into a virtual Left wing think tank.
For reasons too numerous to detail here Pennsylvania state government is one that makes change incrementally. Bold, sweeping action of any type on any issue happens rarely and then only when there is some level of agreement between factions of the two political parties. Currently, Democrats are a unified and unbending block, and the capitulation wing of the Republican caucus has been rendered impotent by the sheer number of more conservative members elected in recent election cycles.
As if this were not enough of a prescription for gridlock, the Governor has opted to double down on his so-called progressive agenda. The only possible outcome is an extended period of confrontation. This will happen because neither side will be able to back down without paying a hefty political price. The governor is beholden to labor unions and will block Republican efforts to address budgetary cost drivers like public employee pensions. Across the aisle, Republicans enjoy their current large majorities because of conservative legislators sent to Harrisburg to cut spending and prevent tax hikes.
By making his opening bid confrontation rather than compromise Governor Wolf has created a climate in which acrimony and gridlock will flourish. That is unless one or both sides abandon the constituencies which elected them to office. That could happen; if you believe in fairy tales.
(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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