MILLER: Budget leaves everything to be desired


By Dick Miller


WE.CONNECT.DOTS:   Ten months into Pennsylvania state government’s current fiscal year, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf looks less likely to win re-election next year.

Now in the third year of his first term, he has yet to win a major victory in tussles with a Republican (and stubborn) legislature.

GOP opposition stymied Wolf’s first two annual budgets.  This year he hopes to sneak a Republican-kind of budget through for the 2017-18 year.

Lawmakers and the Governor are supposed to agree on a budget by July 1.  That is the beginning of the fiscal year, but rarely do they meet the legal deadline.

Wolf is the first candidate to prevent an incumbent governor from winning his second term since governors were allowed two terms beginning in 1970.

Republican Tom Corbett did not win a second term in 2014.  Now, Wolf — the 2014 victor – might lose his re-election effort in 2018.

Implementation of a heavily-gerrymandered legislative district map spawned an overwhelming Republican edge in the state house and senate, as well as a 13-5 margin in Congressional districts.  This is how the GOP offsets Democrats having a nearly one million voter registration edge.

Wolf has been head of the state Democratic Party for about two years.  Former Gov. Ed Rendell pulls the strings, but both have shown interest in upping the party’s numbers among lawmaking seats.

Wolf briefly served in Rendell’s cabinet, running the revenue department.  From this service and his successful business experience, Wolf should be managing state finances better than shown.

Despite candidly promising to raise major taxes to save public education and return fiscal sanity to Harrisburg, Wolf handily won both primary and general races in 2014.

In that year, Republicans, promising no new taxes, won legislative seats.  Both claimed mandates from the voters.

Today the state’s share of public education funding has dropped to 33 percent, one of the lowest in the country.  College education costs more in PA than most places.  Fixing roads, bridges and other infrastructure is behind schedule.  The two huge state pension funds are short over $65 billion.

Sales and personal income taxes remain the same.  Wolf has conceded cuts in business taxes while pathetically promoting more levies on the working poor.

Republicans claim they control Harrisburg . . . with some reason.

In his proposed 2017-18 budget, Wolf asks for no increase in either major tax.  Instead, he would gather in about $1 billion in new monies through gimmicky proposals that also do not set well with the Republican legislature.

Wolf wants to sell the Farm Show Arena for $200 million and then lease it back for use by the state.

Wolf would offer retirement buyouts to senior employees.  He has not reported how much this would increase pension underfunding.  In fact, Wolf’s budget proposal includes no solution to the pension issue.

Wolf still hopes to pass an extraction tax on minerals.  Not only are Republican lawmakers against this, but so are many of their Democrat brethren.  Legislators from both sides have been taking campaign contributions from oil and gas interests for years.

Reportedly, a consulting firm was paid nearly $2 million to help create Wolf’s new budget strategy.  The contract was not bid.

The crush against the state’s working poor continues.  And Wolf and Rendell must shoulder some blame.

Only the diminishing band of Democrat lawmakers escape responsibility.  They have been “out to lunch” since Tom Ridge was governor before the turn of the century.

Our gasoline tax is highest of all 50 states (some 58.2 cents).  Both parties supported tacking on 18 cents several years ago, supposedly to repair roads, bridges and other infrastructures.

Some $600 million annually of “road taxes” are re-directed to compensate an overstaffed state police force.  The highly-paid troopers service municipalities that are too cheap to have their own forces.

Wolf proposes to begin taxing those townships and tiny boroughs $25 per resident to help pay for this.  His levy would only cover a tenth of the actual cost, according to state police testimony at recent budget hearings.

Even that modest amount appears dead-on-arrival.  The rural area is a significant Republican base.  Why should they support imposition of the new tax?

The next great delusion could involve an end to the property taxes at the local level.  This is portrayed as the most politically expedient method to equalize state funding of public education.

However, to do this, Harrisburg would need substantial increases in personal income and sales taxes.  Without changes in the state constitution to create a graduated income tax, the burden is unfair.

How will this budget be reconciled?

Republican legislators will fall back on more gambling.  Slots and poker machines will spit out taxes in corner bars.  Online gambling may also begin, for the same reason.  More liquor and beer will beckon from grocery stores and restaurants.

Casino owners first paid $50 million each for slots licenses, then $16.5 million more to offer table games.  They expected some exclusivity on gambling.

Bottom Line: In Rendell’s cabinet, he had the chance to learn from an expert.  Next, he bought the 2014 primary because three-better-known Democrats split nearly half the vote.  That fall he whipped Corbett, who was going to lose regardless of his opponent.

More than half of his term as governor has passed and Wolf has yet to take leadership on any issue or cause.  All those Republican lawmakers and Wolf cannot identify any who put state over party.