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Lowman Henry: Pa. budget follies set to resume

| Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, 8:45 p.m.
The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg.
The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg.

The last time a Pennsylvania governor signed a full, complete state budget into law was July 10, 2014. Gov. Tom Corbett signed off on that state fiscal plan just days after it was approved by the Legislature, completing a four-year run of on-time state budgets.

Nearing the end of his four-year term, Gov. Tom Wolf has yet to experience such an official signing of a state budget. Instead, budget battles have consumed state government.

Governors have three options after legislation is passed by the General Assembly. The governor can veto the bill, killing it unless his veto is overridden by a two-thirds majority in both chambers; sign the bill into law; or take no action, allowing the bill to become law after 10 days.

The latter is how Wolf has chosen to respond to all three budgets passed during his tenure. Wolf has crafted a national reputation for advocating massive increases in taxes and spending. Signing the more prudent budgets offered by the Republican-controlled Legislature does not feed that image.

Divided government is at the root of Pennsylvania's ongoing budget drama. In 2014, Democrat Wolf accomplished a historic first by defeating an incumbent governor seeking re-election. But while voters were busy dispensing with Republican Corbett, they also elected near-record Republican majorities to both the state Senate and House. Republicans added significantly to those numbers in 2016.

Wolf moved to the far left to outmaneuver his opponents, then proceeded to attempt to govern in that fashion. Meanwhile, the Republican caucuses in the General Assembly have grown significantly more conservative.

All of this set the stage for the budget impasses to come. Wolf played a major role in creating gridlock by proposing that his very first budget increase taxes by an amount greater than the combined total of proposed tax hikes in all 49 other states combined. Republicans recoiled at that prospect, and thus ensued the longest budget stalemate in state history.

In 2016, Republicans caved in to many of the governor's spending demands, but not enough to merit his gold star of approval. The budget wars resumed again last year; a spending plan was passed in July, but no revenue plan was adopted to complete the budget until October.

And now it is time to start all over again. Against the backdrop of a gubernatorial election year, with Republicans gunning to make Wolf the second one-term governor in a row, the budget process is now underway.

There are, of course, political implications. The governor will again push for the Holy Grail of a severance tax on natural gas drillers sought by Democrats and apostate Republicans. But legislative Republicans, who saw their numbers increase when they stood firm against the governor's tax-and-spend agenda, will want to appeal to their base by again keeping the governor in check.

The first clue as to how pitched the battle might be will come next month, when Wolf delivers his budget address to the General Assembly. Which Wolf will show up? The Wolf of 2015 who demanded record increases in taxes and spending, the lecturing Wolf of 2016 who scolded the Legislature for not giving him his way, or the more subdued Wolf of 2017 — still determined but not as aggressive?

The 2018 gubernatorial race will put the state budget in the spotlight. It will be interesting to see if Wolf gets to experience the thrill of signing a budget, or whether he goes down in state history as the first governor never to sign one.

Lowman Henry is chairman and CEO of the Lincoln Institute.

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