HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania’s annual state budget wrangling always carries uncertainty, but that’s particularly true this month as Gov. Tom Corbett and his allies in the Republican-controlled Legislature face an enormous funding shortfall and the extra pressure of a looming election.
Corbett may have simply been acknowledging reality several days ago when he summoned Capitol reporters for an unusual news conference on the status of budget talks. He left the door open for tax increases while saying negotiations might blow past June 30 – the end of the state government’s fiscal year.
It appears the governor has left for dead the anti-tax pledge that constituted a major element of his successful 2010 campaign, and he also seems willing to miss the budget deadline despite repeatedly listing on-time budgets among his biggest accomplishments.
“If we’re not able to finish by June 30, we’re not able to finish by June 30,” Corbett said.
A budget that takes a few extra weeks may not hurt Corbett much, but there’s a risk if talks go into August, said Wilkes University political scientist Tom Baldino.
“When you drag on the budget into August and beyond, then you’re having an effect on counties and local governments,” Baldino said. “They’re going to be scrambling to cover costs – it can get really ugly.”
In 2011, his first budget season, Corbett and his GOP allies trumpeted on-time passage as a contrast with his Democratic predecessor, Gov. Ed Rendell. None of Rendell’s eight budgets passed by the deadline.
That first year there were some tough choices that have haunted the Corbett administration, such as when he cut about $1.1 billion from public schools and universities after federal stimulus support dried up.
Early in his second year, Corbett and lawmakers reached a deal to give counties authority to impose an impact fee on natural gas drilling, despite his campaign promise that covered both new taxes or fees. The budget plan that made it to Corbett’s desk with more than a day to spare in June 2012 reduced business taxes while cutting support for human services.
Democrats criticized the approach bitterly.
“My advice to Pennsylvanians … is don’t get old, don’t get sick, don’t try to educate kids, don’t be unlucky enough to be disabled, don’t try to find a job, don’t try to catch a bus and don’t try to find a nondeficient bridge,” Rep. Joe Markosek, a House Democratic leader on budget matters, said at the time.
Last year’s budget again included some business tax cuts but also delayed a scheduled phase-out of a significant business levy, the capital stock and franchise tax. Business groups scored that as a type of tax increase.
Corbett intertwined those budget talks with three other issues: transportation funding, privatization of the state liquor system and reductions in pension benefits for future hires in schools and state government. The governor made a full-court press but none of them passed along with the budget he signed in the Capitol Rotunda with more than an hour to spare.
He eventually did get new money for transportation infrastructure when the Legislature in December approved a plan to raise $2.3 billion a year through higher gasoline taxes and an array of motorist fees.
This year, Corbett revived the push for pension savings and liquor privatization, saying he wouldn’t consider a tax increase until lawmakers first approved cuts to public pensions for future hires.
As the House prepares to take up a pension bill, Baldino said Corbett has a lot riding on the result – and a lot to lose if it goes nowhere.
“Democrats will capitalize on that to no end,” Baldino said. “It gives them an opportunity to make Corbett appear weak and ineffective.”
The House Republican leader on budget issues, Rep. Bill Adolph of Delaware County, said he plans to propose a budget Tuesday that will include some sort of new revenues, though he declined to say what they will be.
If lawmakers need an incentive to get a budget agreement, they know the faster it happens the sooner they can head home for the summer. As for the governor, trailing in the polls to Democratic nominee Tom Wolf, the campaign trail beckons.