The Pennsylvania legislature finally got what it deserved Thursday: many millions less. Gov. Corbett's line-item veto of more than $70 million to be spent on the legislature and its pet projects drew attention to lawmakers' tendency to take care of themselves while ignoring the state's pressing problems. Most egregiously, they left town for a long summer vacation without doing anything to avert further disaster for Philadelphia's state-run schools.
While the governor, both chambers of the legislature, and city officials all agreed to a Philadelphia-only cigarette tax expected to cover only part of the schools' deficit, a bill enabling the levy was mired in bicameral bickering. Rather than resolve their differences, legislators gave up and headed for the beach.
Already depleted by layoffs and cuts, the School District is facing a $93 million deficit. A $2-a-pack tax would provide a projected $80 million a year once it's in place, but the district's fiscal year has already begun. That means that each week of legislative dithering is costing the schools an estimated $1.6 million.
Given the likely repercussions for the education and even the safety of thousands of schoolchildren, this is the most disturbing of the legislature's failures this season. But it's far from the only one.
Lawmakers have also been unable to achieve all but the most tentative steps toward pension reform, a priority for the governor and anyone else taking an honest look at state finances. Nor have they been able to join 48 other states in getting out of the liquor business.
Corbett's leadership on education funding has been disappointing. So has his ability to motivate a legislature controlled by his fellow Republicans. But given his reasonable goals on pension and liquor reform, as well as his recent willingness to consider Democratic priorities such as a natural-gas tax, the legislature's failure stands as the capital's most stunning. Senators and representatives, Republicans and Democrats - all have joined forces to accomplish nothing.
Moreover, as administration officials noted, they richly rewarded themselves for doing so. In an austere budget cobbled together with gimmicks and stopgaps, the legislature ventured to increase its $320 million in yearly spending while hoarding nearly half that much in reserve.
At worst, Corbett's assault on this ethically dim but fiscally insignificant corner of the budget will go down as the ineffectual outburst of a man facing an election with far too little to show for his years in office. At best, it will end lawmakers' unearned vacation early and force them to do some work for the state and its children.