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John Baer: Budget will be late, painful

HAPPY JUNE, y'all; it's budget time here in the Land of Low Expectations. Will the state budget be on time? With a tax increase? Will Mayor Nutter get what Mayor Nutter wants?

HAPPY JUNE, y'all; it's budget time here in the Land of Low Expectations.

Will the state budget be on time? With a tax increase? Will Mayor Nutter get what Mayor Nutter wants?

I figure no, yes and yes.

For as Pennsylvania's sterling leaders again strive to meet the annual June 30 fiscal-year deadline - which hasn't happened since His Edness took office - things look bleak.

The Democratic (tax-and-spend) House and the Republican (deliver-the-mail) Senate are miles apart and face an expected $3.2 billion deficit that might even be bigger. New state revenue numbers are due today, and Guv Ed says he'll offer more spending cuts this week.

On-time budget?

"If people are serious about negotiating," says House Appropriations Chairman Dwight Evans, D-Philly.

"Yeah, they [the House] could pass Senate Bill 850," says Senate Appropriations Chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre County.

Evans knows this is a joke. Senate Republicans daily issue public statements saying Democrats are doing nothing. And Corman's reference is to a May 6 Senate-passed budget with no Democratic votes but program cuts so deep some see a coming Black Death.

Lines are drawn: If you rely on state services and Republicans prevail, prepare to perish; if you pay state taxes and Democrats win, prepare to pay even more. The gap portends a summer of listening to gasbags.

And taxes?

GOP leaders have said no, not even Ed's proposed new taxes on tobacco and energy, and especially no expansion of general taxes on sales or income.

But now a personal-income-tax hike is floating around, and Corman (who doesn't like the idea) tells me, "I'm not one who takes everything off the table."

Meanwhile, Democrats say, "Oh, it's only as a last resort," which is code for "Grab your wallets, kids, a tax hike is coming."

A 1 percent increase in the state's 3.07 percent PIT - it was 2.8 percent when Ed took office - would bring in $3 billion.

(Maybe somewhere in the process, someone can explain: (a) how so many families go year after year without increased income - and sometimes less income - yet manage to make ends meet, while government spends more every year no matter what; and (b) if so many government programs do such good and needed work, why it seems that the needs never lessen.)

Nutter's request for authority to raise the sales tax from 7 percent to 8 percent to help deal with his own budget deficit?

It'll happen. It's easy to do. He's not seeking money from the Legislature. And, just like last year when it agreed to allow the city to raise the local hotel-occupancy tax, the Legislature really doesn't care what Philly does to itself.

"I don't see any reason why it won't happen," Corman says. "I think we'll try to help the mayor."

Rendell proposed a $29 billion spending plan in February. It awaits House action. The Senate budget is $27 billion. Both are probably more than the state has to spend - which is why a tax hike is coming.

Oh, and because it's easier than doing the work required to make cuts that don't harm the truly needy, or selling off assets such as the anachronistic State Store system, or giving back hundreds of millions of dollars in legislative slush funds.

Plus, since lawmakers give themselves annual automatic pay raises large enough to cover a little PIT-hit, hey, why not?

I suppose it's possible that both sides will agree soon to act in the best interests of the people and produce a budget combining minimal hurt to those reliant on state service and minimal hits to those funding such service.

Possible, that is, somewhere other than in the Land of Low Expectations.

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