Crisis Budgeting Isn’t Governing

By vetoing budget after budget, denying funds to schools and nonprofits, and even holding up scholarships for low-income students to attend schools of their choice, Gov. Wolf has done everything in his power to create a crisis.

As a result of his actions, nonprofits dependent on state aid are laying off staff, while school districts’ borrowing costs have reached nearly $1 billion. Some districts are even bracing for the possibility of staying closed after the Christmas break.

On Friday, Gov. Wolf’s spokesperson blogged a slew of insults hurled at the House Republican Caucus in a truly amazing display of playground name-calling. What provoked this outburst? The caucus's opposition to Gov. Wolf’s demand for an estimated $1.2 billion tax hike on working people.

The Wolf Administration has derided those opposed to his plan as childish, which is spectacularly ironic when a sign of maturity is a willingness to stand on principle in the face of immense pressure. 

Yes, governing is about compromise. Acknowledging this, Republicans passed a budget with a $1 billion increase in spending back in June. Included in the budget was an additional $387 million for education—an increase meant to satisfy Gov. Wolf, who campaigned on boosting education spending. Many Republicans would have preferred a much leaner budget but determined that was not a possibility. In other words, the budget passed in June was a compromise for many legislators.

Republicans also passed meaningful pension reform and liquor privatization in June. Gov. Wolf vetoed these reforms, along with the $30.1 billion budget in its entirety. He set in motion the current budget crisis to demand even higher spending, along with new tax increases.

Given the pain many are experiencing, the urge to end the budget impasse is understandable, but passing flawed legislation in the midst of a crisis is not a reasonable approach to governing—especially when more viable alternatives exist.

Asking lawmakers to agree to hundreds of pages of controversial budget legislation in a short timeframe is anything but prudent. Moreover, many of the demands Gov. Wolf continues to make—using the crisis to his advantage—were not part of the “framework” he claims legislative leaders agreed to. Specifically: 

  • The Senate’s budget includes $85 million in new spending on “Walking Around Money.”
  • The pension bill passed by the Senate did not include the legally required actuarial note, and includes delaying payments (saving $170 million next year but adding $500 million to taxpayers’ debt over the long term).
  • The wine-in-restaurants-only plan passed by the Senate, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ably puts it, “was not a sweeping rewrite of the state’s outdated liquor laws. It’s not even a foot in the door to privatization.”
  • On Thursday, Gov. Wolf added a demand that the budget include massive cuts for cyber school students.
  • Legislators have yet to come to any agreement as to how to pay for all this new spending. Gov. Wolf continues to demand $1.2 billion tax hike on working families despite a lack of legislative support for his demand, even among Democrats.

As the examples above demonstrate, governing by panic increases the likelihood of approving needlessly flawed legislation. With many budget details still outstanding, critical deliberation is needed, but prolonging a resolution is sure to inflame the effects of the budget crisis. This can be avoided.

To prevent further pain, lawmakers should pass a stopgap budget and reset the discussion on how to protect families trying to balance their own budgets. Adopting recommendations in a report authored by Representative Seth Grove is a great place to start. 

Let’s continue to have a robust debate about the size and scope of Pennsylvania’s budget, but the debate should take place outside the shadow of a crisis, where cooler heads can prevail.

It’s simply not responsible to pass a budget just to “get it done.” We need to get it right.