Legislators pass budgets more swiftly if there's fallout, review finds

The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg.
The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg.
Photo by Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Natasha Lindstrom
| Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016, 10:20 p.m.

Pennsylvania has virtually no consequences when lawmakers fail to pass a budget on time — a dynamic that is unusual among the 50 states, a national review of state budget rules shows.

Six months into what has become the state's longest budget stalemate in at least 40 years, the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership decided to examine consequences for late budgets elsewhere.

In Ohio, all facets of government shut down if the Legislature ends its session without at least agreeing to an interim budget by the deadline, the nonprofit advocacy group found.

In Virginia, the governor presents a budget proposal in December, and the part-time Legislature cannot adjourn until it agrees to a budget, which typically gets enacted by the end of February.

California has contemplated removing its governor and lawmakers from office if they breach their June 30 deadline. Its constitution prohibits lawmakers from drawing any travel or living expenses until a budget gets enacted.

The 2015-16 budget for Pennsylvania is 188 days late. Gov. Tom Wolf signed a partial spending plan last week, using line-item vetoes to allow the state to send money to schools and contracted human-service providers for the first time in six months.

But Wolf, a Democrat, and the GOP-controlled Legislature must still negotiate $7 billion to $8 billion in spending and resolve party-line disputes over tax hikes and pension reform.

“You need to engineer a system where there are real consequences if a budget is late,” said Justin Phillips, Columbia University political scientist with expertise in state budgets. “Obviously, policy disagreements can help lead to late budgets, but ... when observable consequences occur, that's when lawmakers really start to act.”

In more than 20 states, late budgets trigger almost complete government shutdowns, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Those states furlough noncritical employees, kick campers out of state parks and close driver's license centers.

Pennsylvania schools and nonprofits are reeling from digging into reserves and taking out credit lines during the impasse. Preschool centers started closing in late October. By November, nonprofits statewide had dipped into reserves, scaled down programs and laid off workers. Some domestic violence and emergency housing programs stopped taking new clients. Schools risked not reopening after winter break.

But unlike the impasse of 2009, there were no drum-beating union supporters crowding the Capitol because their members were not getting paid. A court ruling since then bars the state from withholding employee pay.

Said Max King, president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation, “When the vulnerable populations are held hostage and they don't have a lot of political influence, nothing happens.”

Delayed consequences — such as higher interest rates triggered by bond rating downgrades — do not tend to mount as much pressure, because their true impact on taxpayers might not be felt for years.

The sheer size of Pennsylvania's General Assembly — 50 seats in the Senate and 203 in the House — makes building consensus particularly challenging. Only New Hampshire's part-time Legislature of 400 is larger.

In any given year, a majority of states enact budgets on time — “even when the economy is struggling,” Phillips said. “Most late budgets are resolved within a couple of weeks.”

Legislatures seem to fare better at meeting deadlines when they are part-time and have biennial budgets.

Nineteen states, including Colorado, Missouri, Nevada and Utah, passed budgets on time every year between 1961 and 2006, Phillips' research shows. Over the same period, Pennsylvania missed its deadline 37 percent of the time. Those budgets were late an average of 33 days, with the last long stretch going for 175 days in 2003.

Soon after Pennsylvania missed its July 1 deadline, Wolf instituted a ban on all nonessential travel and purchases by state agencies. Even without a budget, the state managed to spend 30.4 billion in state and federal dollars between July and October, a Republican study found.

State Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Shaler, and Sen. Rob Teplitz, D-Dauphin County, are co-sponsors of a proposal to suspend lawmakers' pay during budget gridlock.

That's a move most voters seem to want. A Franklin & Marshall College poll in August found nearly two-thirds of Pennsylvanians think lawmakers should give up their pay when a budget is overdue.

But it might not do much to accelerate compromise.

“There's not really any evidence that where legislators themselves get docked pay, that it has any effect on increasing the timeliness of a budget,” Phillips said.

Voter backlash can be a deterrent. Yet some Pennsylvania Republicans have been more wary of disappointing constituents opposed to tax hikes.

Said Phillips, “The issue is: ‘Are voters going to remember this late budget on Election Day a year away?' ”

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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