Now that Pennsylvania's 2015 (or was it 2013?...I've lost track after all this time) budget fiasco is finally behind us, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the GOP-dominated houses of the State Legislature have a fresh new start -- to think up new ways to keep Pennsylvania beating on, like boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly toward the 19th Century.
Not surprisingly, Republican lawmakers in Harrisburg who got elected on a platform of "jobs, jobs, jobs," when left to their druthers -- like their counterparts in Washington and in other statehouse around the country -- turned their attention not to opening up the labor market but to shutting down the reproductive rights of Pennsylvania women. Maybe the move to restrict women's right to choose -- limiting non-emergency abortions to the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, down from the current 24 -- is not surprising, considering that Pennsylvania ranks near the bottom of states in female legislators.
But the abortion restriction is surely another colossal waste of time in a city synonymous with pointless exercises, since any bill is sure to be vetoed by the pro-choice Wolf...if the measure even gets that far. It does drive home the point that Donald Trump's babbling on the issue in recent days -- such as his recanted claim that women should be punished for abortion if the practice is outlawed -- merely put out into the open what a lot of Republican elected officials think but won't say on the complicated issue.
But futile abortion jihads isn't where the GOP can do the most harm in the commonwealth. That risk comes from the state budget process -- since a liberal Democratic governor and an increasingly far-right legislature can agree to disagree on just about everything except that one giant annual ream of paper that keeps Pennsylvania from shutting down completely.
With the memory of the 2015-16 fiasco still a fresh nightmare, Republicans are trying to take the lead in the 2016-hopefully-not-2017 budget dance -- even if it means the last tango for any sane approach to education and economic development. In this morning's Inquirer, reporter Angela Couloumbis did some stellar work in getting her hands on recent emails by Republican lawmakers as they map out strategy for Round 2 of their fiscal wars with the Wolf administration.
To quickly review, in last year's fight, Republican lawmakers succeeded in protecting their Big Oil donors by blocking a severance tax on natural-gas production -- Pennsylvania is still the only major fracking state without one -- that would have brought needed relief to public school districts that have struggled financially during the 2010s. Looking forward, some Republican lawmakers are eager to cut taxes or freeze funding in ways that would slam Pennsylvania's middle-class school kids the hardest.
The most detailed -- and extreme -- proposals came from a rural Crawford County lawmaker, Rep. Brad Roae. He actually had one great idea -- actual expenses for state lawmakers instead of their bloated "per diems" -- and one debatable one in selling off the State Stores. But much of the rest, as reported by Couloumbis, was a medieval crusade against the arts, culture and learning:
Roae called for closing state-owned residential facilities for individuals with intellectual disabilities, reversing the Medicaid expansion that added coverage to hundreds of thousands of uninsured Pennsylvanians, selling State Stores, and repealing prevailing wage policies.
He said arts grants and even the state meteorologist may have to go. And he proposed ending higher-education grants for students studying "poetry or some other Pre Walmart major."
When I read this quote this morning, I can't describe how offensive I found it. I might be in the minority on this, but while we certainly do need to train the next generation of scientists and mathematicians, a society that only trains scientists and mathematicians is no longer a civilization. And there are a lot of engineers who'd agree that a world without poets isn't much of a world.
Plus, those state grants to college STEM majors aren't even worth as much when Pennsylvania's grade schools and high schools are crumbling.
Over the years, read enough left-wing websites (I do that, so you don't have to) and you'll see the theory -- more than a "conspiracy theory" at this point -- about what would happen if the modern, extremist Republican Party were to fulfill all its Ayn Rand-flavored fantasies. It would be a society with a handful of plutocrats and a mass of worker drones, too poorly educated to fight back, too exhausted from their non-prevailing wage job, or too broke or sick from lack of health insurance, to even vote.
And yet that once-unbelievable fantasy is that reality of what Republicans like Brad Roae would like to accomplish for Pennsylvania in the 21st Century -- from their failed efforts to curb democracy with a voter ID law, with their push under former Gov. Tom Corbett to deny health insurance to the lower middle-class, with lawmakers blocking a higher minimum wage and refusing to acknowledge that underfunding schools will scare away business CEOs who want trained workers, not low taxes.
Only one citizen in Pennsylvania actually benefits from this insanity: Tom Wolf. At this rate, he won't even need to present any accomplishments to the electorate in 2018 -- just remind folks that he's their last and only defense against the Pennsylvania apocalypse.