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Tom Wolf and that bad, bad 'Stranger Things' budget in Harrisburg

As the governor decides what to do with a new state budget finally on his desk, we ask what, if any, political fallout comes in the budget's aftermath.

Gov. Tom Wolf faces a decision on the state’s new, very late, very strange budget.
Gov. Tom Wolf faces a decision on the state’s new, very late, very strange budget.Read moreMATT ROURKE / AP

Now that our Looney Tunes legislature passed a state budget — long overdue and way underdone — what sort of political fallout do you think ensues?

It's four months late and fiscally reckless, yet another short-term fix for a state with long-term problems. And Gov. Wolf, yet again, faces a budget that doesn't begin to reflect his agenda.

Also, it's odd.

It calls to mind the hit Netflix sci-fi thriller Stranger Things, which includes an alternate dimension called the "Upside Down."

In Harrisburg, the legislature and Wolf are living in their own "Upside Down" — and each year producing stranger things.

For example, this $32 billion duck is the handiwork of a Republican legislature led by conservative GOP leaders. Yet it's built on massive borrowing ($1.5 billion) and a broad expansion of gambling, things conservatives generally oppose.

You know the party reliables: fiscal responsibility, family values.

As one Republican insider asked, "Since when did borrowing and gaming become conservative talking points?"

Well, since Democrat Wolf was elected in 2014 and called for fixing the state's structural deficit with real budgets and sustainable revenue (read: new taxes), including a natural-gas severance tax.

Can't have that.

Republicans loathe taxes, especially on industries filling campaign coffers, and are first and foremost fiscal stewards and cost-cutters.

Yet their budget spends more than last year; has more borrowing despite a recent credit downgrade, creating more long-term costs; and expands gambling, with highly questionable long-term revenue projections.

And, for some reason, it legalizes most fireworks — then taxes them 12 percent, on top of the 6 percent sales tax (8 percent in Philly), to bring in an estimated $2.8 million.

Why? For fun, I guess.

After all, if government does anything, shouldn't it encourage more gambling and filling the skies with bottle rockets? What could go wrong?

Oh, and there are a couple quirky specifics in gaming expansion.

A provision for $40 million in grants to help any underperforming casinos (our legislature knows all about underperforming) just might tick off other casinos to the point of litigation.

And a provision allowing slot machines at truck stops defines a truck stop so loosely that it could be, basically, anywhere a truck stops.

I'm seeing slots at long red lights and traffic-jammed interstate entrance ramps.

What's not in this budget or accompanying it is anything approaching reform or improving a budget process demonstrably in need of improvement.

Taxpayers continue paying, perking, and covering expenses for 253 people during months on end that they fail to meet statutory deadlines or even really balance a budget. That says all you need to know about how they treat your money.

To add to that little butt-burner, this year's product includes a nearly 4 percent, close to $12 million increase (to $325 million) for legislative operations at a time we're all told money is tighter than two coats of paint.

Guess they figure a reward is in order for operating so well.

Does Wolf sign it? His office isn't saying. But it's a budget he wouldn't touch with a pooper-scooper, and the betting is he lets it become law without his signature, as he's done with budgets each year since taking office.

Remember, Wolf wants to borrow, too: $1.25 billion against Liquor Control Board profits. If he does, that could draw a lawsuit. Could also give him enough money to avoid another budget fiasco next year while running for reelection.

So, back to the original question: Political upshot of all this?

My money's on none.

Pennsylvanians have low expectations. Six, eight months from now, this budget's forgotten. Republican control of the legislature seems safe. Wolf can point to earlier gains in education, medical marijuana, and compromises on "historic" action related to improvements on booze and pension policies.

Meanwhile, bond lawyers and casino owners rake in money. And your state leaders continue to serve you. Especially if you like bottle rockets. And governing from an alternate dimension.