In November, Pennsylvania voters handed Republicans in the General Assembly historic majorities. In the Senate, the Republicans have a veto-proof majority. Across the Capitol, the Republicans in the House have a 40 vote advantage. The coming New Year also portends an impending battle over the next budget. Governor Wolf has already demonstrated his willingness to use state employees as leverage in a public relations battle with the General Assembly; there is no indication that his approach will change. With a $1.7 billion revenue shortfall projected for next year, what should the General Assembly do?
If Republicans in the General Assembly were smart, they would upend a long-standing budget tradition and go on offense. Typically, the budget season is kicked off by the Governor’s budget address to the General Assembly. In his first budget address, Governor Wolf laid out a laundry list of progressive/liberal policy goals he wanted in his first budget. In his second address, he scolded the General Assembly for not giving him any of what he asked for in his first budget. Keep in mind, the Governor’s policy priorities came with a hefty price tag and would have required a massive tax increase.
In the coming year, the General Assembly should ignore tradition and preempt the Governor’s budget address with a plan of their own. That isn’t to say they should release a statement with the usual platitudes about protecting taxpayers. Rather, the House and Senate Republicans should have an entire budget and revenue plan prepared and release it ahead of the Governor. A preemptive General Assembly budget would force the Governor to play defense rather than the usual offensive position granted to governors.
To be successful and fiscally responsible, the General Assembly must address the revenue side of the equation first. Although it sounds strange, and it does defy logic, the General Assembly typically decides how much they’re going to spend and then cobbles together a tax package to pay for it. By determining the revenue ceiling first, the General Assembly would force the Governor to give a detailed account of who he would tax to pay for his almost certainly higher number. Providing exact numbers for how the funds would be dispersed also forces Department Heads to justify any amount above the General Assemblies stated budget when hearings commence.
Republican leadership must also avoid the trap, which they frequently fall into, of crafting a package "that the Governor will sign." No matter how generous the General Assembly is with tax dollars, the Governor will want more. Instead, leadership would do well to work with their caucus members and craft a plan that they are satisfied with otherwise, the entire effort will be for naught.
Voters gave Republicans historic majorities in the General Assembly in 2017. The question now is, what will Republicans do with it? Will they squander the opportunity, or will they make the hard choices that voters are trusting them to make?