Video slot machines at truck stops, mini-casinos, a firecracker tax, and piles of new debt: That's all to be found in the thought bubbles of the cartoon characters in the Pennsylvania legislature who have failed to come up with a fiscally responsible plan to close a $2 billion deficit and balance the state's $32 billion budget.
Why didn't anyone offer such an asinine array of ideas before they passed a spending plan without a way to pay for it in June? Because the scheme won't work. It is terrible fiscal policy that doesn't address the state's long-term fiscal health. Many of the lawmakers know that. But because they can no longer bear to sit in the same room with each other, this is what they offer.
Legislators have exhausted themselves fighting over whether to cave in to video-gaming terminal lobbyists, who wanted slot machines at truck stops, or casino lobbyists, who wanted to keep their gaming monopolies.
So, legislators conceded to both sides by coming up with a 939-page gaming bill delivered during a marathon late-night session earlier this week. They couldn't possibly have had the time to read the mammoth bill or weigh its implications.
The legislation calls for 10 mini-casinos and includes a definition of allowable slot-machine truck stops so loose you could drive a convoy through it.
None of that matters to the legislators. Without any rigorous analysis, they think this bill will generate $200 million. They're also counting on getting $1.5 billion by issuing bonds based on projected revenue from a 1998 settlement with tobacco companies. That's money earmarked for health-care costs.
Keep in mind that the bond deal doesn't generate actual revenue. It's borrowed money — debt. And debt has to be paid back, even in Pennsylvania, where legislative leaders are pretending they live in the land math forgot.
Debt seems to be all the rage in Harrisburg. Gov. Wolf wanted to resolve the budget with a $1 billion bond deal based on liquor revenue.
In retrospect, he should have either fully or partially vetoed this year's budget, which didn't include the revenue to pay for it.
Wolf could have cut the legislators' free cars and the cash incentives they give themselves for showing up but not actually working. (Given the four-month budget stalemate, it's hard to argue that they ever did work.)
But Wolf didn't want to go down that road again. He vetoed his first budget in 2015 and the ensuing stalemate lasted nine months. In 2016, he let the budget pass into law without his signature.
Wall Street has taken notice of Harrisburg's failure and downgraded the state's credit rating. That means it will cost taxpayers more for the state to borrow money. That's particularly bad for Pennsylvania, considering that borrowing and spending is what passes for fiscal policy in the state Capitol.
Taxing the natural gas industry, the state's one source of ready money, wasn't even on the table. Fracking lobbyists have legislators so whipped they have killed almost 70 natural gas tax bills, leaving Pennsylvania as the only major natural gas producing state that doesn't impose a severance tax. But that may change.
After taxing gambling and trying to leverage revenue from tobacco and liquor, there are few sins left to tax. Unless of course sloth counts.