Pennsylvania budget struggle 'mirror image' of Illinois

Brad Bumsted
| Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016, 10:40 p.m.

HARRISBURG — Illinois and Pennsylvania, two states without final 2015 budgets, should trade governors, a business lobbyist suggests.

“We're a laughingstock in Pennsylvania,” said Kevin Shivers, director of the National Federation of Independent Business in Pennsylvania, which represents small businesses. “Illinois is the same.”

When Shivers talks with colleagues in other states, they first ask about Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who faces criminal charges — then the incomplete budget, Shivers said.

Shivers was being facetious about swapping Gov. Tom Wolf for Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, but he was also calling attention to a serious problem.

“We're mirror images of each other,” said Joe McLaughlin, director of the Institute for Public Affairs at Temple University. “You have in Illinois a conservative Republican governor and a liberal Democratic Legislature. In Pennsylvania, you have one of the most conservative legislatures in recent history and a liberal Democratic governor.”

Wolf is not going to Illinois, but “we'd certainly like to have a Democratic legislature,” said Wolf's spokesman, Jeffrey Sheridan.

He suggested sending House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Marshall, to Illinois.

Turzai could not be reached for comment.

Challenges in the states are similar: raising new revenue and fixing pension problems. In Illinois, it's Rauner who's saying no to tax increases. In Pennsylvania, Wolf has pushed for higher sales and income taxes. Republicans in the state House nixed a tax and budget deal in December. Wolf was willing to go along with a watered-down pension reform plan, but House Democrats would not support it.

The consequences in Illinois “are much more poisonous,” said Steve Peterson, a political science professor at Penn State Harrisburg. There is no budget approved in Illinois, though lawmakers did appropriate money for lottery winners and education.

“Basically we've been working without an operating budget,” said Nathaniel Hamilton, communications manager for the Illinois Policy Institute, a free-market nonprofit policy group.

Some state spending has continued automatically or as a result of court rulings, but funding for human services, public universities and community colleges is at risk, said Charles Wheeler, director of public affairs reporting at the University of Illinois in Springfield.

In Pennsylvania, about 90 percent of the budget was approved in December — six months late — but $6 billion in key expenditures remains outstanding, including funding for schools, prisons and state-related universities.

“Divided government and a need for new revenue most often lead to budget delays,” McLaughlin said.

Historically, Pennsylvania has been in the middle of the pack among states in adopting late budgets.

From 1973 to 2011, 15 of 39 budgets were late by an average of 29.3 days, according to Temple researchers. That average was driven up by a 101-day impasse in 2009 under former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell.

Increased partisanship in Pennsylvania, Illinois — and Washington, D.C. — contribute heavily to budget crises, analysts say.

It's exacerbated by two freshman governors, both former businessmen, who came into office to “shake up the system,” said J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University. That means they are less likely to compromise, he noted.

Though states are seeing more revenue now, “drastic cuts” from a recent recessionary period make budgeting “a zero sum game,” Leckrone said.

Both Rauner and Wolf are Dartmouth College graduates.

“Change is hard. Reform is difficult,” Rauner said last month in his “State of the State” address. “But we can't just raise taxes again. We know that doesn't work. While the 2011 tax hike was in place, our credit rating was downgraded five times; we barely made a dent in our bill backlog; state support for schools was cut; our unfunded pension liabilities went up $28 billion; and our economic growth fell to almost half the national average. Raising taxes without improving our ability to compete will not help the people of Illinois, and in fact, it will make things worse.”

In his 2016 budget address last week, Wolf said that “the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania cannot meet its obligations to its citizens if the General Assembly does not meet its obligation to pass a responsible budget.

“Anyone in this chamber who claims we can simply cut our way out of this mess without also increasing revenue is just ignoring the math. They're also ignoring history. If we don't have sustainable revenue sources in our budget, the result will be billions of dollars in new property tax hikes.”

Brad Bumsted is the Tribune-Review's state Capitol reporter.

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