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Pennsylvania should look to Louisiana for budget stalemate solution

| Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards are both Democrats trying to get their state's annual budgets approved by Republican legislatures. Wolf is approaching seven months without a budget. Edwards is just starting down that path.

Both states face huge deficits. Both governors have called for new taxes, arguing that there is no way to cut their way out of their states' financial quagmires. And both governors plan to improve education and other essential government services. But the similarity ends there.

“This crisis is not about politics at all. This is about math. Pennsylvania faces a $2 billion budget deficit,” Wolf said in his budget address. “That's not a Democratic fact or a Republican fact. It's just a fact.”

But Edwards, facing a $2 billion deficit next year, believes that facts alone will not carry the day. In his televised budget address last week, he bluntly called for new taxes. And he targeted the non-believing legislators, motivating them with a little promised pain.

Declaring that legislative inaction will lead to the cancellation of classes at the state's universities, Edwards said “many students will not be able to graduate, and student athletes across the state at those schools will be ineligible to play next semester.”

Adding the kicker, he said, “That means you can say farewell to college football next fall.” And just in case some legislators missed the point, Sports Illustrated clarified it, with the jarring headline, “Louisiana governor: Budget crisis could cancel LSU football season.”

Wolf has similar arrows in his quiver. Football is king in much of Pennsylvania, too, along with other sports. The prospect of losing a season would be more than some voters could bear. That might shake loose a few legislative votes as fans clamor for compromise and a return to the games.

Closing the state's liquor stores would surely get some voters beating a path to their legislators' doors. But this would make no economic sense. The state stores are profit centers and, since Pennsylvanians are unlikely to drink more to make up for lost time, that revenue would be lost forever.

There are services that, if closed, might hasten a budget deal. Social service agencies and parks make life better; it would be hard to lose them.

Closing public schools would affect everybody. Many parents struggle on the occasional snow day. Private school parents no longer would enjoy public school transportation.

Louisiana surely is different than most states. It once had an ethically challenged incumbent governor run against a Ku Klux Klan wizard, prompting bumper stickers that read, “Better a lizard than a wizard.” And the lizard won.

But this new governor is worth watching. If his “no pain, no gain” approach to budget stalemates works, it might be a formula that works across the land.

Joseph Sabino Mistick, a lawyer, law professor and political analyst, lives in Squirrel Hill (joemistick.com).

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