Civility at the Capitol, for now, as budget deadline looms

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – There is the annual budget-season noise in the Capitol.

Rallies are packed to the rafters.

Speakers at microphones pound podiums and raise the roof.

But on budget negotiations, there’s an odd quiet at the Capitol.

Gov. Tom Wolf likes it that way.

“The process seems to be going in a very civil and constructive fashion,” Wolf said.

We’re told all sides agree to spend just under $32 billion.

The disagreement is how to pay for it and the deadline is Friday.

“They’re looking for money, literally emptying out the sofa to find quarters and nickels and dimes,” laughed the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry’s Gene Barr, whose prowling the hallways hoping to head off any new taxes.

One popular target is an extraction tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas drillers. The governor, Democrats and most Pennsylvanians want it. Republican legislative leaders say no.

“We have the votes to pass it,” said Minority Leader Frank Dermody (D-Allegheny/Westmoreland). “If they run the bill, it’ll pass.”

Barr calls an extraction tax a bad idea. “If we kill this industry, we kill one of our best hopes for moving Pennsylvania forward.”

There is a behind-the-scenes battle over expanded gaming. The state is badly addicted to gambling and the coming budget will likely increase its reliance.

Another proposal would borrow more than a billion dollars now against future tobacco settlement revenues due annually to the state.

“Generally, borrowing is the worst thing you can do in public finance,” said Rep. Seth Grove (R-York). But Grove wouldn’t rule out being a yes vote on a final spending plan with borrowing pending the details.

Wolf isn’t a fan, either.

“A one-time borrowing will cover a one-time deficit,” Wolf said Tuesday. “It will not cover a recurring deficit.”

There it is, the D-word: deficit. This fiscal year and next has an estimated $3 billion deficit. The shortfall is only enflamed by the past several budgets that critics call mathematically dishonest, not truly balanced, and the reason recurring revenue is desperately needed.

“We have to get serious about it because we’ll do the same thing we’ve done the last six years, which is end up with another deficit at the end of the year because we fibbed about how much money we’re going to achieve,” Dermody said.

Fibbed?

Actually, it’s not a lie to knowingly over-inflate revenue estimates to proclaim a budget balanced. And it’s not illegal.

“Remember, the constitutional provision says it has to balance for one second on one day,” Grove said.

Instead of finding more money, conservatives like Grove say Pennsylvania should spend less of it.

“That works. It works for homes. It works for businesses. It can work for state government,” Grove said, “but it requires a backbone to say this is how much we need to spend.”

As the budget clock continues to tick, it will be interesting to see how long that civility thing sticks.

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