SOMETHING must be done to cut the tangled mess of knots that has paralyzed state government over spending and taxation.

Everyone knows how bad it has been, with Gov. Wolf and the Republican-controlled Legislature entangled in ceaseless rounds of proposals and counterproposals. It stymied passage of a state budget last year, resulting in real pain for local governments and school districts that depend on a steady flow of state subsidies.

The governor, at least, is making soothing noises about budget negotiations this year, but there is no reason to think real progress will be made. After all, this is an election year, when half of the 50 members of the Senate and all of the 203 members of the state House are up for re-election.

That leads us to believe that the "solution" will be to pass a budget that meets minimal needs and fails to address issues - be it pensions or taxation or the state's deficit - in any real way. We believe the two sides will be at it again next year, still tangled up over the same issues.

In a labor dispute, when the two sides are at an impasse, the safety value is to call in a mediator - a neutral party with experience in labor matters - to move things forward.

We need such a mediator in Pennsylvania today.

We're not talking about one person to sit down with Wolf in one room and Republicans in another, while she shuffles back and forth with proposals for settlement.

We need a group of people with knowledge of government, economics, public policy and practical politics to help shape a third path that is realistic, involves shared sacrifices and has as its main goal moving the commonwealth forward into the 21st century. We need to cut the Gordian knot of partisanship that has paralyzed Harrisburg for the last two years.

As one guideline, the group can use a recent study of the state's tax system by the Washington, D.C., nonprofit Tax Foundation.

What that study revealed is that when it comes to taxation, Pennsylvania is plain old-fashioned in its approach. We have a sales tax, for instance, that taxes goods, but not services - at a time when the service economy is the fastest growing sector of the economy.

We have a corporate income tax that is second highest in the nation - 9.9 percent - which has proved to be a drag on economic development.

We have an income tax rate that among the lowest in the nation (ranking 44th). We are also one of a few states that has a flat tax rate of 3.07 percent and forbids graduated rates.

We are not even going to go into the wisdom and effectiveness of government spending - which also should be examined in detail.

This mediator - call it the 21st Century Commission - should not be controlled by the Legislature: Why bring the usual parties into the room just to listen to them argue? Nor should it be stacked to favor the governor and his appointees.

It should be bipartisan in the truest sense of the word, with emphasis on expertise and not political stripe. It will not have the power to enact any of its recommendations, but it could lobby for their passage. And it surely will want public input during its deliberations.

If it puts the Legislature and the governor on the spot, so be it. Someone should. This is one way to do it - and get things done.