While school districts across the Commonwealth were forced to borrow about $1 billion to survive the longest budget impasse in 60 years, Gov. Tom Wolf told Pennsylvania taxpayers that he was holding out for a balanced budget.
He couldn’t hold out any longer.
After a 266-day standoff with Republicans who hold the majority in both the state House and state Senate, Wolf will allow a $30 billion Republican-backed budget package to become law without his signature. It’s a budget that Wolf warned would be a “train wreck” just eight days ago. And he says nothing has changed.
“The math in this budget does not work,” Wolf said in an emailed statement. “Next fiscal year already has a $2 billion structural budget deficit that this budget does nothing to address. Ratings agencies and the Independent Fiscal Office have all agreed that Pennsylvania is facing a massive structural budget deficit. If left unaddressed, the deficit will force cuts to schools and human services, cause devastating credit downgrades that will cost taxpayers millions, and increase property taxes for our senior citizens.”
But if Wolf is right and nothing has changed, we’ve essentially waited nine months for a budget that gave us no new sustainable revenues. We’ve waited nine months to learn that Wolf’s proposed tax on natural gas drillers is not forthcoming. We’ve waited nine months to find out that Pennsylvania taxpayers will have to repay millions in interest on the loans that kept school districts afloat while state money was held up by petty politics.
We have, in essence, waited nine months to find out that we could be in a bigger mess than we were in when we started.
Wolf blames Republican legislators who he said refused to bargain in good faith. Republicans, having gotten their way, are gleefully pointing the finger at Wolf.
I blame both the Governor and the Republican-led legislature for this mess.
Gov. Wolf, a businessman, clearly did not fully grasp the fine art of political compromise. And it didn’t help that he publicly badmouthed the very people he needed to work with in order to make a deal.
That combative style of leadership, along with the intransigence of Republican legislators who refused to negotiate on tax increases, led to a nine-month budget stalemate.
Along the way, Wolf, who’d repeatedly vetoed GOP budget proposals, offered a glimmer of hope by releasing six months worth of emergency funds for schools and over $9 billion for human services.
But if he’d cracked open the door for compromise by releasing those funds, Wolf slammed it shut during his second budget address in February, when he wagged his finger at Republicans.
“If you can’t agree to the budget reforms I’ve proposed, then help me find a sustainable alternative,” Wolf said. “But if you won’t face up to the reality of the situation we’re in, if you ignore that time bomb ticking, if you won’t take seriously your responsibility to the people of Pennsylvania, then find another job.”
House GOP leader Dave Reed didn’t take kindly to the lecture, and in remarks to the Philadelphia Daily News, compared the governor to Peter Pan. “I was hoping [Wolf] was going to come back from fantasy land . . . instead he left for Neverland,” Reed said.
We’re talking about grown men here, people, and that’s the shame of it all.
Did Republicans play political games, signaling they would agree to a budget deal, and then reneging? Yes, they did. Did Gov. Wolf overestimate his negotiating position to the detriment of Pennsylvanians? Yes he did.
But despite their past mistakes, both sides now have a chance for a fresh start. With negotiations on the new budget just around the corner, neither the Governor nor the Republican-led legislature can completely undo the fiscal missteps of the past year. However, they can avoid repeating them.
For the sake of all Pennsylvanians, I hope they choose the latter.
Listen to Solomon Jones Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. on 900 am WURD.