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Messages from the state budget mess

Gov. Wolf and Republican leaders remain miles apart on a new budget partly because both sides make some good points.

WHAT HAPPENS when both sides of an argument have decent points but neither side is willing to acknowledge the other's merit?

In Pennsylvania, you don't get a budget.

One reason the budget is nearly one month late - and certain to be much later - is Gov. Wolf and Republican lawmakers make pretty sound pitches.

At least they sound like sound pitches.

House Speaker Mike Turzai, a GOP hard-liner, made some Monday at a Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon in Harrisburg.

He noted, for example, that while Democrat Wolf won last year, Republicans didn't lose a single seat; in fact, they gained in the House and Senate.

The House has the largest GOP majority since Dwight Eisenhower was president.

The clear implication is the no-tax budget passed by Republicans but vetoed by Wolf better represents Pennsylvania than the new-tax budget Wolf wants.

Yet Wolf won running on taxing shale to pay for schools (even though many Republicans say he won because of Gov. Corbett's unpopularity).

Turzai, opposed to a shale tax and significantly more school money, touts a GOP agenda: Hold the line on spending, sell the State Stores, put new state workers and teachers in 401(k)-type pensions.

As you know or can guess, Wolf's against all three.

Some of this stuff gets wheeled around without much context, making it easy to support or oppose.

A lot is dished out to voters in partisan TV ads and mailers from both sides because, well, that's what democracy's become: If you can't lead or compromise, spend money to scare, skew or smear.

But that's another story. Let's look at Turzai on education, booze and pensions.

The 14-year incumbent from Allegheny County notes that taxpayers spend $27 billion (from all sources) on K-12 annually and $3.2 billion (out of a $30 billion general fund budget) on pensions.

His point is we spend enough on public schools and too much on public pensions.

Many agree.

But when he says we rank high among states in per-pupil spending (13th) he fails to note we rank low among states (44th) in state share of spending.

And he argues that Wolf's budget "does not have the support of the citizens of Pennsylvania," but ignores a Franklin & Marshall College poll last month showing a majority (58 percent) supporting Wolf's budget.

That's the same majority that supported it when it was introduced in March.

The poll also shows the voters' top budget priority is the same as Wolf's, "increasing state funding for public education."

Lowest item on the list? Below "other things"? With just 1 percent of voters calling it their top priority? Privatizing liquor stores.

Now certainly Magic Mike would argue degrees and note the GOP budget increases money for schools; and privatizing booze brings needed revenue.

But it's hard to argue Wolf lacks public support for taxing shale to fund education at a higher rate than Republicans.

(Though enacting a funding formula to change the fact the U.S. Department of Education rates Pennsylvania worst in the nation in equitable spending among districts sure would help.)

On pensions Turzai has a case. He notes hundreds of thousands of current and retired teachers and state workers would not be impacted by a GOP bill (also vetoed by Wolf) to put new employees in a self-saving plan instead of the state's generous, way over-extended pension program.

"That has to happen," Turzai said Monday, noting taxpayers "want to know the public sector is no different from them in their everyday lives."

He's right. But he's wrong about overriding Wolf's veto of the GOP budget. That takes a two-thirds vote. The numbers aren't there.

What is there is a way out. Wolf gives on pensions, Republicans give on shale and both sides score some points.