LET the games begin.
The state House has passed a budget. In March! One hundred days early!
This is the same state House that last year couldn't pass anything but gas, a condition that gave us the nation's longest budget blockage - 101 days late.
I'd remind you that Gov. Ed signed the '09 budget Oct. 9, though its final funding related to approval of table games wasn't in place until January.
So action in March is good, no?
Not necessarily. For if you think House endorsement yesterday of a no-new-taxes spending plan for the fiscal year starting July 1 means either the budget's done or the Legislature's seen the light and now puts policy ahead of politics, you'd better think again.
See, the narrowly Democratic-controlled House (104-99) hopes to remain Democratic after the November elections and so is showing constituents that - by God - it works hard and responsibly.
House Appropriations Chairman Dwight Evans, D-Phila., tells me, "We need to get this done. People want us to make this work."
When I ask about political motivations, he says, "It seems like I can never win."
OK, I'll grant some points for getting things started.
But do Republicans buy into this new, improved get-'er-done approach?
On the surface, the reason is we can't possibly act responsibly on a budget without knowing what the fiscal year-end deficit will be since that number is growing and expected to top $500 million, possibly much more.
In addition, the budget, while increasing state spending, including $354 million more for schools, fails to address coming problems such as the loss of federal stimulus money and the underfunding of public pensions for state employees and teachers.
So Republican leaders argue that the House-passed budget isn't realistic.
After the Democratic measure was approved, 107-89, with support of five Republicans (including Philly Reps. John Perzel and John Taylor), GOP House Leader Sam Smith said in a statement, "This budget is irresponsible."
And Senate Appropriations Committee chief Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre County, recently told me: "There are a lot of unknowns. The deficit has every chance of being larger than the governor's projection . . . and, remember, last year we [the Senate] passed an early budget and by June it was out of balance."
But below the surface are some hard political facts supporting a scenario in which the GOP-controlled Senate (30-20) sits out serious budget action for as long as it pleases.
For example, with all 203 House seats up for grabs, House Democrats could lose control of their chamber if only three seats flip in November. In a year expected to favor Republicans and test incumbents, that's certainly possible.
But Senate Republicans have a much tighter hold on their majority for two reasons: Only half the Senate faces re-election this year, and, more importantly, of the 15 GOP incumbents running, seven have no opposition in either the primary or general election. This makes it nearly impossible for Republicans to lose Senate control.
When I ask Corman if House Democrats are at greater political risk if the budget is late for an eighth straight year, he reluctantly acknowledges, "I guess that's a fair assessment."
I also guess there's no chance whatsoever that what the House did yesterday becomes this year's state spending plan. Even Evans conceded by day's end, "I'm not putting up a 'mission accomplished' sign."
Good thing. For this is but the start of the games. We'll see what gamesmanship ensues - and by whom.
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