Note: This commentary appeared in the Allentown Morning Call, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, York Dispatch, and many other news outlets across the state.
It took 267 days, two full vetoes, one partial veto, and one veto threat, but Pennsylvania finally has a state budget. In letting the Legislature’s budget become law, Gov. Tom Wolf conceded defeat, saying, “We need to move on.” We can all agree on that.
The good news is Pennsylvanians’ wallets were spared, thanks to legislators standing against Wolf’s tax hike plans. The bad news is during the longest budget impasse in 60 years, the governor developed and implemented a Lone-Wolf Doctrine that could continue into the 2016-17 budget season.
In his 2015 budget address, while proposing the biggest tax increase in America, Wolf said: “If you don’t agree with my ideas, here is my request: please come with your own ideas. It’s not good enough to just say no and continue with the same old same old.”
Nice sounding words, but when lawmakers followed this advice and brought their own ideas, Wolf became the first governor in decades to fully veto a budget. He even rejected 274 line items that equaled or surpassed what he had requested.
This set off the budget impasse and inaugurated Wolf’s “my way or the highway” approach to governing—an approach that has developed into the Lone-Wolf Doctrine. At every step and on nearly every issue, Wolf has proven unwilling to compromise, repeatedly rejecting any ideas not his own.
On liquor privatization, for example, Wolf vetoed historic reform because it would have eliminated the antiquated state-run monopoly and alienated the liquor store union that supported his campaign. He also vetoed critical pension reform—instead proposing a status quo approach that keeps politics in pensions while borrowing billions to prop up a system already billions in the red.
Even in his decision to allow the 2015-16 state budget to become law, the Lone-Wolf Doctrine was apparent.
Instead of signing the balanced budget that boosted education spending without raising taxes and passed the Legislature with bipartisan support, Wolf stepped aside and withheld his signature. Such a grandstanding gesture is unheard of on this fundamental responsibility of state government.
At the same time, Wolf vetoed the fiscal code, which outlines how budget dollars are allocated. Notably, the fiscal code includes the universally-praised fair funding formula for education spending developed by a bipartisan commission.
In explaining his veto, Wolf said his administration would distribute school funds “in the most appropriate manner possible.” Translated: he intends to bypass the Legislature and spend the money how he sees fit.
This unilateral approach is hardly a new one for Wolf. In December, he used the lack of an education code bill to distribute school funds according to his own highly political “formula” that ignored the education funding commission’s recommendations.
In what remains a head-scratcher, Wolf followed up his December line-item veto of more than $900 million in corrections funding by ordering the State Treasurer to release the funding anyway. Later, when the House passed legislation to officially restore the vetoed funding, Wolf promised yet another veto, but said the Treasurer would still send money, regardless.
Confused? It seems Wolf was so opposed to admitting agreement with the Legislature that he was willing to chase his own tail and stand the state constitution on its head just to say “I’m the one calling the shots.”
From the budget to corrections to education to pensions to liquor, the Lone-Wolf Doctrine has been marked by a dogmatic refusal to compromise. Regrettably, Wolf has shown if he cannot have his way, he is willing to block reforms and hold schools hostage, relenting only after public opinion, media, and members of his own party say “enough is enough.”
Unfortunately, the collateral damage cannot be ignored. For example, non-profits impacted by the impasse will be paying debt service for years, according to Samantha Balbier of the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership. And school districts have needlessly accumulated tens of millions in borrowing costs, according to Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.
With 2016-17 budget deadline just three months away, will the governor learn any lessons and soften his hardline stances? Or will he persist in his lone-wolf politics? Let’s hope that, in this case, the past does not foretell the future.
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Matthew J. Brouillette is president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation (CommonwealthFoundation.org), Pennsylvania’s free market think tank.