Impasse ends, but Lone-Wolf Doctrine remains
It took 267 days, two full vetoes, one partial veto and one veto threat, but Pennsylvania finally has a state budget. In letting the Legislature's budget become law, Gov. Tom Wolf conceded defeat, saying, “We need to move on.” We can all agree on that.
The good news is Pennsylvanians' wallets were spared, thanks to legislators standing against Wolf's tax-hike plans. The bad news is during the longest budget impasse in 60 years, the governor developed and implemented a Lone-Wolf Doctrine that could continue into the 2016-17 budget season.
Proposing the biggest tax increase in America in his 2015 budget address, Wolf said: “If you don't agree with my ideas, here is my request: Please come with your own ideas. It's not good enough to just say no and continue with the same old same old.”
Nice sounding words, but when lawmakers followed this advice and brought their own ideas, Wolf became the first governor in decades to fully veto a budget. He even rejected 274 line items that equaled or surpassed what he had requested.
This set off the budget impasse and inaugurated Wolf's “my way or the highway” approach to governing — an approach that has developed into the Lone-Wolf Doctrine.
On liquor privatization, for example, Wolf vetoed historic reform because it would have eliminated the antiquated, state-run monopoly and alienated the liquor store union that supported his campaign. He also vetoed critical pension reform — instead proposing a status-quo approach that keeps politics in pensions while borrowing billions of dollars to prop up a system already billions in the red.
Even in last week's decision to allow the 2015-16 state budget to become law, the Lone-Wolf Doctrine was apparent.
Instead of signing the balanced budget that boosted education spending without raising taxes and passed the Legislature with bipartisan support, Wolf stepped aside and withheld his signature. At the same time, Wolf vetoed the fiscal code, which outlines how budget dollars are allocated.
In explaining his veto, Wolf said his administration would distribute school funds “in the most appropriate manner possible.” Translated: He intends to bypass the Legislature and spend the money how he sees fit.
This unilateral approach is hardly a new one for Wolf. In December, he used the lack of an education code bill to distribute school funds according to his own highly political “formula.”
Wolf has shown that if he cannot have his way, he is willing to block reforms and hold schools hostage, relenting only after public opinion, media and members of his own party say “enough is enough.”
Unfortunately, the collateral damage cannot be ignored.
For example, nonprofits impacted by the impasse will be paying debt service for years, according to Samantha Balbier of the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership.
And school districts have needlessly accumulated tens of millions of dollars in borrowing costs, according to Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.
With the 2016-17 budget deadline just three months away, will the governor learn any lessons and soften his hard-line stances? Let's hope that the past does not foretell the future.
Matthew J. Brouillette is president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation (CommonwealthFoundation.org).