By Andrew Staub | PA Independent
HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania – Republican lawmakers on Tuesday steamrolled through liquor privatization, public pension reform and a state budget without a tax increase.
They were doing what the people elected them to do, they said.
Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, squashed the conservative celebration not long after, announcing he will veto the entire GOP budget. He is doing it because he believes he was elected with a different mandate — one that Republicans ignored.
This year’s budget season already has been cloaked in partisan ideology. The fact that Wolf and the Republicans who control the General Assembly both believe they have vastly different mandates from voters only exacerbated the discord in the run-up to Tuesday’s soft budget deadline.
“It looks like it’s going to take some genuine crisis to resolve it,” G. Terry Madonna, a pollster and political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College, said about the budget dispute.
Republicans have long eyed selling off the state-run wine and liquor stores and putting new state and public school employees into a 401(k)-type retirement plan, and they got that under their budget that holds the line on taxes. But even after including a $100 million increase for basic education, Republicans gave Wolf little reason to be happy with their budget.
The governor wanted a severance tax on the natural gas industry to fund big increases for education funding. The GOP declined to pass that. They also refused to consider higher income and sales taxes as part of a sweeping tax shift Wolf wanted to use to lower property taxes.
Wolf also asked that lawmakers erase a structural deficit without so-called “gimmicks.” Republicans said they did, but the governor contends the spending plan is put together with smoke and mirrors and would build upon the deficit.
“It’s what I feared. This is a budget that actually doesn’t work,” Wolf said Tuesday night as he announced his intention to veto the spending plan.
Republicans sent Wolf a bill without his top priorities – priorities that polling has shown voters also like. The most recent Franklin & Marshall College Poll found that 58 percent of voters supported Wolf’s budget plan, with increases to education funding and property tax reform their top legislative priorities.
“He believes he’s got the public support on his side,” state Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said earlier this week.
There are reasons for both sides to think they’ve got a mandate, Madonna said.
Wolf soundly defeated incumbent Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, marking the first time a sitting governor was denied a second term.
In the same election, Republicans built upon their existing majorities in both the House and Senate, with a cadre of more conservative lawmakers joining the rank-and-file. While they must think about the state as a whole, they’re elected from gerrymandered districts with voter registrations that make a primary challenge scarier than the general election, Madonna said.
“It’s the nature of the separation of powers. It’s the way our government works,” Madonna said, adding that Republicans have been emboldened by Wolf’s liberal agenda.
State Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, ticked off the list of seven GOP candidates who won in November and said none were elected to raise taxes. They have their own mandate, he said.
“They’ve come here, and they’ve said clearly what their job is to do is to hold the line on spending and no more taxes on the people of Pennsylvania,” Corman said.
The Franklin & Marshall College Poll found that liquor privatization was dead-last among voters’ legislative priorities, but Republicans see it as an attractive revenue generator that doesn’t involve raising taxes. Their budget includes about $220 million in revenue from changing the way the state sells booze.
It would also let Pennsylvanians buy wine, liquor and beer in the same place.
In passing liquor privatization, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson said the legislature was listening to constituents who wanted booze freed from state control.
“Consumers want this bill. Small businesses want this bill. State lawmakers want this bill. It’s time for Gov. Wolf to give the people of Pennsylvania what they want,” said Kevin Shivers, executive state director of the National Federation of Independent Business in Pennsylvania.
Democrats called it a mistake, arguing liquor privatization would eliminate 4,700 jobs, increase underage drinking and sell off a valuable asset that could be more profitable under a modernization plan. They also opposed pension reform, saying Republicans were fleecing state employees and public school teachers of their retirement security.
Wolf said he will review the liquor privatization and pension bills. He knows what he will do with the budget.
Republicans rebuffed questions that moving a budget that Wolf talked about vetoing was merely theatrics, but Democrats said the spending plan is a masquerade.
“It’s not real because it’s based on tricks and ideology. It’s also not real because there isn’t a person in this building who actually believes it’s going to be enacted into law,” state Sen. Rob Teplitz, D-Dauphin, said of the GOP budget.
A veto, Teplitz said, would just create a few days of artificial chaos that would force lawmakers to return to Harrisburg next week to “get serious” about budgeting.
Teplitz is right about that. Sooner or later, the people’s business must get done, no matter what mandate Wolf and Republicans believe they have.
“Eventually, they must find an agreement,” Madonna said. “There’s no two ways about it. They just simply have to do it.”