IF IT'S EARLY May, it must be time to get cracking on a new state budget.

This means fits and starts and bipartisan bloviating as no-tax Republicans go up against active-government Democrats.

In other words, the same tiff playing out in Washington.

The difference in Pennsylvania is that no-tax Republicans run the show while active-government Democrats watch and whine.

The overriding similarity is, of course, self-protection.

So expect predictable posturing, Capitol rallies and protests, but really not much of a battle, and, barring any unforeseens, on-time if not early passage of another no-tax budget.

For two main reasons: The GOP-controlled Senate plans to vote on a spending bill this week, and it's an election year with all the House and half the Senate facing voters, so there'll be minimal controversy.

The way incumbents stay incumbents is by lying low; legislative leaders help by running things smoothly.

The fiscal-year deadline is June 30. The target date to pass a budget is June 15.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jake Corman, of Centre County, says he'll put Gov. Corbett's proposed budget up for committee amendments Tuesday and for floor votes Wednesday, a clear sign that a push is on.

The amendments are to include some restoration of deep cuts Corbett sought in February, a clear sign of movement toward less budget pain, more peace in the valley.

It can happen because the state economic outlook looks a little brighter.

Last week, April tax collections came in $100 million, or 3 percent, higher than expected; and the state's new Independent Fiscal Office said that by the end of June we'll have $400 million more than the Corbett administration predicted.

This is not to say we're entering a land of milk and honey.

But House GOP Leader Mike Turzai, of Pittsburgh, now expects more spending than proposed by Corbett to go to basic education, higher education and mental-health and mental-retardation programs.

Republicans always seem to put MH/MR funding first on their human-services list, ahead of, for example, general assistance or food stamps, services that tend to be concentrated in urban/Democratic areas.

Corman tells me he agrees with Turzai's three areas that are likely to see more dough.

When I ask about apparent GOP preference for MH/MR funding, he says: "I don't know. I can tell you I visited some MH/MR facilities in my district and they make a compelling case."

He quickly adds, "But I think we'll look at human services in general."

This could mean some solace for service-heavy Philadelphia.

House Appropriations Chairman Bill Adolph, of Delaware County, says he's "comfortable" with the new revenue numbers and agrees they'll lead to softening Corbett's cuts. He says he expects to work "very closely" with the Senate to finalize a plan "as soon as possible."

Any Republican action now is important because it creates a vehicle for the budget and starts the engine.

This is significant.

In contrast, any Democratic action, such as an alternative budget to be offered by Philly Rep. W. Curtis Thomas, is, to be kind, significantly less significant.

And larger politics are at play.

A presidential election year means higher voter turnout, which means many lawmakers want to avoid budget haggling when they can be home campaigning.

What's not in play?

Anything not directly related to getting the budget done early.

Now of the table are issues such as transportation funding, the sale of state stores, school vouchers, business-tax reform, pension reform and the closing of the "Delaware loophole."

This is regardless of their import to the state's future, in the case of transportation or pensions, or to the current GOP agenda.

"We're concentrating on the budget," Adolph tells me.

It must be early May. n

For recent columns, go to philly.com/JohnBaer. Read his blog at philly.com/BaerGrowls.