Tis the season, as they say, for the governor and legislature to do their annual budget thing.
It's a time our elected leaders slap together some phony fiscal plan allowing the commonwealth to maintain its mediocrity. And, if you're talking jobs, business and quality of life, its bottom-dwelling status among states.
To visualize the process, picture key players filling seltzer bottles, putting on white-face, red noses, curly wigs, then piling into tiny cars.
Got that image? Now add calliope music.
That's the atmosphere in which the state budget, taxing and spending affecting virtually every resident of the nation's fifth-largest state, is produced.
But cheer up. Sports betting is on the way.
And since we're in an election year for Gov. Wolf, the full House and half the Senate, you can bet on a no-drama, no-new-taxes, maybe even on-time budget on or about the oft-missed June 30 deadline.
What a relief, eh?
No bitter battles twixt the Democratic governor and Republican legislature. No delayed funding for schools and others. No talk of darkness, plagues, locusts and/or water turning into blood.
How, you wonder, is it possible — after years of predicted financial collapse if lawmakers shunned (as they did) Wolf's calls for big tax increases — we now have peace in Harrisburg, the Big Top of funny-money government?
Because the national economy is better. Because projected state tax revenues actually are coming in. And, most important, because last year our leaders expanded gambling and borrowed $1.5 billion, enough to paper over not one but two years — solely to get to the next election.
And here we are.
Still, expect familiar aspects in this different budget year.
Wolf is still calling for a severance tax on natural gas. Still not gonna happen. Wolf still wants a $25-a-person fee for State Police protection in places without police forces. As if. And Wolf wants roughly $450 million more to split between education and home services for the elderly and disabled. He'll still get only some of his ask.
And property-tax relief? Dream on.
What will pop up is money for enhanced school safety, maybe block grants. Because who will oppose it with school shootings so much in the news.
Also, on the upside (sort of), the state s ready to cash in on the U.S. Supreme Court's recent ruling legalizing sports betting.
If our 13 licensed casinos all want a sports-betting license (and why wouldn't they?), they're available at $10 million a pop, potentially meaning $130 million in new revenue in the coming fiscal year.
Happy, that is, unless you long for value-based governance.
For although lawmakers focus on another nothing budget, fundamentals to move the state forward — a fairer tax structure, better job creation, needed government reforms — will, as always, be ignored.
Or why, as the national unemployment rate plummets, our unemployment rate is among the highest in the country, highest in the northeast.
Or why we're the only state in our region that hasn't hiked the minimum wage.
Polarized politics? Ineffective leadership? An unincentivized legislature with automatic annual raises regardless of performance and reelection rates topping 90 percent? A nonvoting citizenry long accustomed to low expectations?
Yes. All of the above.
And as to government reforms — independent citizens' redistricting commission, merit selection of judges, open primaries, reducing size of the legislature — that lately are getting attention and even some action?
Well, now it's budget time. Little else matters. The moment calls for focus on issues of taxing and spending. And getting out of town to campaign for reelection.