While tens of millions of Americans were huddled around their TV sets on Saturday, leaving rum-soaked holiday parties or in the middle of the new "Star Wars" flick to race home for the all-important Democratic presidential debate*, Harrisburg was up to its new-old tricks. Lawmakers failed for the umpteenth time to pass the state budget that was due back on July 1, way back when Donald Trump was still seen as a reality-show reject and not as the Dear Leader of the pending Fourth Reich.
Gov. Wolf and some legislative leaders had assured Pennsylvanians -- the handful who hadn't tuned out this three-ring circus months ago, anyway -- that the latest handshake was the real deal. There's growing concern that Gov. Wolf's vote counting skills were, in the famous words of sportscaster Bob Uecker, jussssst a bit outside. In fact, the first element of the deal -- an overhaul of the state pension system that would have freed up dollars for other parts of the budget plan -- was defeated by 152-49. (House Republicans had promised the votes to pass the pension piece; Wolf is still hopeful he has bipartsan support for the main revenue package.) But to put the pension loss in context, even the Sixers haven't lost won that badly this season (...yet).
It's all sort of hysterically funny -- except for the kids in struggling school districts that might have to shut their doors as early as next month without their state education aid, not to mention all the non-profits that have been squeezed nearly to death in their missions to help the needy and the poor.
As this budget battle has dragged on for nearly half a year, there's been only one thing that has consistently surprised me about this boondoggle: Which is why anyone is in the least bit surprised by this. Many of us saw this train wreck coming for 13 months, since the night that Wolf bucked a national GOP landslide to out the unpopular (duh) GOP Gov. Tom Corbett.
Wolf thought the voters had given him a mandate -- and maybe that was their intention. But anyone who's been paying attention the last few years should have seen that this is not your father's Harrisburg -- which was a dismal riverside swamp of low moral turpitude, where "ideology" was just one more thing for sale to the highest bidder. To adjust the old saying, if you stand for nothing -- as was the case for most Democrats and Republicans in state government in the 20th Century-- you can agree to anything, including a state budget...as long as it has a few extra taxpayer dollars for your son's Little League and the local groundhog museum.
Then came the 2000s, and both parties -- but especially the GOP, energized by right-wing talk radio and grassroots Tea Party groups -- got a lot more ideological and less transactional. The parties also bought fancy-schmancy computers to gerrymander legislative districts -- in theory to rig re-elections for their incumbents but in reality to produce even more ideologically extreme candidates, less likely to do business with the opposing party. In Pennsylvania, incumbents are so protected that when Wolf was winning his landslide victory in 2014, Republicans opposed to his agenda were actually gaining legislative seats.
To be clear, I like Gov. Wolf's persona and I like the bulk (although not all) of his political agenda so far. It's not surprising that his best moments -- freezing the death penalty or amping up regulation of fracking -- were by executive fiat. Wolf was remarkably naive to think he could do business with this legislature, and I'm being charitable. Did he really think a Tea Party icon like Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, with his reactionary anti-gay agenda and his belief that climate change is "leftist propaganda," was going to break bread with the man ID'ed as "the most liberal governor in America"? Washingtonian levels of gridlock and dysfunction had traveled all the way up the Susquehanna several years ago. Did no one notice?
But in the end, Wolf's naive belief that he had a mandate to drive a budget deal on his terms is a problem, but not the problem. The bigger barrier is legislators and a system that rewards them for their fealty to Grover Norquist and his no-holds-barred no-tax pledge or their loyalty to their big-money campaign donors, but not for acting on behalf of the people who elected them.
They're talking about a "stopgap" budget, which would only push back the crisis until the next time. A real solution will require real changes, and not just a different governor. You want to solve the budget crisis? Start from scratch, almost literally. Call a constitutional convention, and start that with eliminating gerrymandering -- by creating a non-partisan reapportionment system that would draw normally shaped districts, based only on population, and not on politics. Change the language on taxation to allow for a progressive income tax in Pennsylvania that would balance the budget on the backs of those who can afford to pay and not on poor folks, through the sales tax. Ban gifts to lawmakers and place strict limits on campaign contributions (or better yet, create a system of public financing) to end the buying of Harrisburg. And for God's sake, don't allow lawmakers to collect their paycheck while public schools are suffering with no budget.
Our little Washington-on-the-Susquehanna can't on like this much longer. The foul water is already spilling over the banks.
* I'm being ultra-sarcastic there.