Caution: Do not attempt to read this blog post until you are at least two cups of coffee into your day and if you are reading this in the evening I would suggest a glass of wine (you know what just leave the bottle).
Well it is that time of year again, Governor Wolf delivered his annual budget address before both chambers of the General Assembly today and laid out his funding priorities for the 2016-17 fiscal year. Man does time fly, it seems like just yesterday we were all talking about the Governor’s inaugural 2015-16 budget and the historic investments he wanted to make in education.
Wait…that was yesterday and the day before that and all seven months before that! Our elected officials in Harrisburg have been talking and working on a 2015-16 budget for 13 months. I don’t know about anyone else but I found it very unsettling to be thinking about a budget, which was due last June 30th, while I was outside shoveling my driveway this evening; worrying about a budget should be done in the sultry heat of June not in the finger-numbing days of February.
Pennsylvania has had a divided government in the past but always seemed to work out a compromise when it came to determining how our tax dollars would be spent each year. Yet here we are with a partial 2015-16 state budget, which does not provide enough funding for our schools to keep their doors open for the remainder of the year, does not address the growing cost of funding our pension system and has absolutely no policy initiatives to ensure students receive a quality education.
So how did we get here? Well with a little help from those who are on the pulse of what’s happening at the Capitol – shout out to all the reporters covering the budget debacle – I think we may be able to piece the past seven months together.
June 2015: The State Capitol was buzzing with the usual budget hubbub. As a reminder (because this was nearly eight months ago), the Governor wanted a historic increase in education funding and significant tax increases to pay for this investment. The Senate Republicans said they would not even consider any new taxes unless there was a permanent solution to the black hole that is public pensions. House Republicans seemed lukewarm (at best) on the prospect of voting for any tax hike but would have probably budged a bit if they were able to get liquor privatization and property tax reform. Despite their different priorities, the House and Senate passed a budget bill and delivered it to the Governor on June 3o, only to have it vetoed (no not line-itemed veto as other Governors have done in the past but in its entirety) minutes later. (Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf vetoes Republicans’ budget)
July 2015 – December 2015: In the six months that followed the Governor’s initial veto, several key things occurred. First, due to there not being a budget, schools (k-12 and higher education institutions) saw no money flowing from the state and, because they pass through the state before going to schools, federal dollars were held captive as well. For a few months schools relied on their reserves but eventually many had to start borrowing millions in order to keep their doors open, which in turn meant they were incurring large amounts of interest on these loans. (Auditor General says budget impasse is killing Pennsylvania schools)
Second, the Governor vetoed a second budget proposal sent to him by a very weary and frustrated House and Senate. The so-called “stopgap budget” would have kept funding at the same level as the previous fiscal year and was a last-ditch effort by the General Assembly to get money flowing out of Harrisburg. But the Governor stuck to his guns and refused to sign anything that did not provide historic funding for education and tax increases to pay for it. (Pa. Gov. Wolf vetoes GOP ‘stopgap’ budget bill)
Lastly, after Republicans in the House and Senate realized Governor Wolf was not going to sign anything unless it included his original budget proposal, they turned their attention to their colleagues across the aisle in an attempt (several actually) to override the Governor’s veto. In order for this to occur, two-thirds of the members in both chambers must vote in the affirmative, which Republicans thought was feasible considering the schools and human services agencies feeling the most pain from the impasse were in Democrat districts. To their credit, however, the Democrats stood by their governor and voted to uphold his vetoes. (State Senate unable to override Wolf’s veto of stopgap budget bill)
December 23, 2015: At this point I was hoping for a Christmas miracle that would put this whole mess to rest, but – – just like that year I got a sweatshirt (bedazzled with dancing dauphins) on Christmas morning instead of the shoes I had been begging for all year – – I was left with nothing but disappointment.
For days the Governor and Senate leadership touted a compromise budget that had support from both chambers of the General Assembly, which included tax increases to pay for the investment in education the Governor promised as long as Republicans got a fix to pensions. Unfortunately, it seemed as though one very important factor was neglected…the 118 members of the Republican caucus in the House who apparently were not privy to this agreement!
With none of their priorities included in this compromise, a large faction of the House Republican caucus told their leaders there was no way they could vote for significant tax hikes with nothing to show for it back in their districts. So the House did not vote on the Senate’s pension bill, and in turn the Senate abandoned the compromise budget bill and instead sent the Governor a $30.3 billion budget instead of the $30.8 billion he wanted (including new taxes and more money for schools). (Pension bill’s collapse derails bipartisan state budget deal)
December 29, 2015: Most people would probably say that their Christmas cheer lasts well into their New Year’s celebrations. For those of us who work in or follow Harrisburg politics, this year any ember of holiday merriment was snuffed out when Governor Wolf held a press conference a week after the Senate sent him a pared down budget and he declared it “garbage.”
Now I am sure we all have said worse, but in the politically-correct hallowed halls of the Capitol calling a six-month late budget bill passed by both chambers “garbage” is going to ruffle some feathers. But to soften the blow of his harsh words, Governor Wolf opted for a line-item approach this time to allow schools and social services to receive some (but not all) much needed funding. In total, the Governor approved a $23.39 billion 2015-16 budget; leaving $6.91 billion on the table (this was estimated to only be enough to fund schools through Dec. 31) to force the General Assembly to come back to Harrisburg to finish the job. (Gov. Wolf vetoes parts of ‘garbage’ budget, lets school funds flow)
December 30, 2015 – February 8, 2016: To be honest, not much has happened since the Governor signed the partial budget back in December. The Governor demanded the General Assembly come back to work and pass his “compromise” budget framework. Republicans in the Senate pointed the finger at their counterparts in the House; while the House attempted to convince everyone that there was not enough support from their members to pass the Governor’s framework. (Pennsylvania Legislature trapped in budgetary twilight zone)
February 9, 2016 – That leads us to today and the Governor’s sophomore budget address outlining his spending and revenue proposal for the 2016-17 fiscal year. Or so we all thought. Instead, Governor Wolf took a very different approach to his speech in front of both chambers of the General Assembly. Instead of laying out his spend numbers and justifying the need for these funds, the Governor chastised House Republicans for their inability to pass the budget he wanted. Needless to say, this did not sit well with members of the GOP who responded with groans when he suggested they “find another job” if they aren’t willing to compromise. (Fighting from Day One: GOP lawmakers hate Wolf proposal, see red over his tone)
Moving Forward: So where do we go from here? If I knew the answer to that question I would be a very rich and powerful person but alas I am neither. However there are some takeaways from all this madness. Here is the good news and the bad news:
Good News: Once again, Governor Wolf is proposing to increase funding for our public schools, which we can all agree is desperately needed. The Governor’s proposal also includes additional education funding for the 2015-16 fiscal year to make sure schools can get through the remainder of the academic year. The Senate Republicans also seem to have moved past blaming the House Republicans for not passing the compromise budget proposal.
Bad News: If Governor Wolf truly wants to put political differences aside and come to the table with members from both chambers and both parties to do right by the people of the Commonwealth, he picked the wrong speech. I fear that the Governor’s tone may have made it harder for Republican members to objectively consider his proposal. The Governor’s proposal does not provide a fix for pensions or include accountability measures, so even if he gets additional dollars for education there is no guarantee those funds will go toward programs that improve student outcomes. The Senate and House Republicans may have made up but they are unifying over their mutual contempt for the Governor, which again puts a wrench in his desire for compromise.
What We Know For Sure: There are plenty of uncertainties in Harrisburg today but the one thing we know for sure is who the obvious losers are in all of this, and they do not have a D or R behind their names. The real victims are the students who have been promised a quality education by their civic leaders who are not providing the resources or accountability safeguards to ensure they receive a world-class education.