With only 25 days left before the constitutionally mandated deadline for a new state budget passes, talk in Harrisburg suggests there won't be a repeat of the partisan impasse that blocked a spending plan for the current fiscal year for nine months. But to quote an old saying: Talk is cheap.
Especially when the talking thus far hasn't come from Gov. Wolf and Republican legislative leaders; it's come from surrogates whose reportedly cordial conversations have raised hopes that a budget deal won't be as hard to reach this time. Of course, talk among aides isn't likely to be as politically charged as it will be once their bosses join the discussion.
Pennsylvanians could feel little more than disgust last year at the train wreck that stood in for budget negotiations. The legislature rejected Wolf's proposed budget and sent him two of its own, which he promptly vetoed. An apparent compromise was derailed in December when House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) wouldn't allow a vote on it. Finally, in March, Wolf let a Republican-constructed budget become law without his signature. But that budget was for the current fiscal year, which was already three-quarters over.
Wolf's proposed $32.7 billion budget for 2016-17 in many respects resembles the spending plan that Republicans rejected last year, including additional funds to help public schools still trying to recover from devastating budget cuts made by the Corbett administration. More importantly, Wolf addresses a structural deficit that is expected to reach $1.8 billion within the year.
It's how Wolf would attack the deficit and better fund schools that Republicans don't like. He would raise the income tax from 3.07 percent to 3.4 percent; extend the sales tax to include basic cable television service, movie tickets, and digital downloads; raise the cigarette tax from $1.60 to $2.60 and tax other tobacco products at 40 percent; and impose a 6.5 percent severance tax on natural gas.
All the self-dubbed fiscally responsible legislators who insist the state can close the deficit and improve school funding simply by cutting spending have apparently taken up residence in some alternate reality in which much of the state budget doesn't consist of required expenditures, including debt repayment and pension funding. The bulk of the state's discretionary spending is for education and human services - programs that serve the state's most vulnerable citizens: children, the infirm, and seniors.
One bit of positive news since the last budget war was the passage of a school funding formula that Gov. Wolf signed into law Thursday. The act removes Pennsylvania from the list of only three states without such a specific method to allocate funds to school districts. But the new basic education funding formula determines only how the education funding pie will be cut; still at issue is how big the pie will be.
Wolf's budget includes a $200 million increase for K-12 schools, which would match the $200 million eventually added to the current budget for them. But that still wouldn't be enough to restore what public education lost through the Corbett cuts. Philadelphia alone gets $200 million less from the state than it did in 2011.