A lawsuit has been filed against Governor Tom Wolf and the Pennsylvania General Assembly for violating the state constitution by failing to approve a balanced state budget in a timely manner. “It is,” says Matt Brouillette, “no way to run a railroad.” Brouillette, CEO of the Commonwealth Chamber of Entrepreneurs, along with State Representative Jim Christiana, and Dauphin County businessman Ben Lewis have joined forces to file the suit.
At issue is the fact the legislature passed, and Governor Tom Wolf allowed to become law, the spending component of this fiscal year’s state budget. The revenue component, as of mid-September, remained unapproved as legislators grapple with an estimated $2.2 billion gap between approved spending and projected revenue.
This type of situation has become standard fare under the Capitol dome. Last year’s state budget cobbled together revenue from sources still not in existence to paper over the budget deficit. That, of course, failed; thus making the current year’s budget deficit significant larger. Talk to most of the players in Harrisburg and they will allege a “structural budget deficit” of over a $1 billion, effectively adding fuel to Brouillette’s lawsuit.
Flaunting the state constitution, which requires every year’s budget to be balanced and passed by the beginning of the fiscal year which is July 1st, is the norm under Democratic governors. Budget stand-offs tarnished the administration of former Governor Ed Rendell, and current Governor Tom Wolf has failed to get a budget passed on time in any of the three years he has been in office.
Why the dysfunction?
The answer is a combination of rigid conformity among state Democrats and a split personality in the GOP.
Although Democrats like to tout themselves as the party of diversity, when it comes to public policy they are in fact the polar opposite. The number of Democratic lawmakers in the Pennsylvania legislature has dwindled to the point where they have become virtually an urban party. Few legislative districts not centered in an urban area are represented by Democrats. The current in vogue excuse for this poor electoral performance is alleged gerrymandering of districts by Republicans, but the ultra-Left wing tilt of the party is actually more to blame.
Thus the Democratic caucuses’ lack of geographic diversity has created a lack of policy diversity. This is reflected in major votes where, unless a senator or representative is given a “pass” for political purposes, they vote in 100% lockstep. This rigid conformity gives Democrats power far greater than their minority status would otherwise afford them.
The real problem though lies with Republicans. With a veto-proof Senate majority (34 of 50 seats) and a lopsided majority in the state House Republicans represent a far more geographically diverse constituency. While a solid majority of Republicans actually vote according to the party’s low tax and fiscally responsible principles, a minority of lawmakers primarily representing the Philadelphia suburbs tend to vote more like Democrats.
This was evident in the current budget stand-off when 14 Republican senators abandoned their party to vote for a wide range of tax hikes and irresponsible borrowing; and in the House only 103 of 121 Republicans voted for a no tax hike budget developed by the chamber’s conservatives. Had Republicans remained true to their principles the Senate bill would have failed and the House budget would have passed by a comfortable, rather than by a slim, margin.
Voters too must share in some of the blame. The heavy concentration of registered Democrats in urban areas that produced large Republican majorities in the legislature also elected Democrat Tom Wolf as governor. Wolf has since been dubbed the “most liberal governor in America” by none other than the Huffington Post, and he has earned that title by consistently proposing and fighting for dramatic spending increases and massive tax hikes.
This combination of partisan divide coupled with Republican schizophrenia has created the current fiscal train wreck in Harrisburg. The annual budget debacles clearly violate the state’s constitution and, with the politicians unable to resolve their differences the door is wide open for Brouillette’s lawsuit to force compliance with the constitution.
After all, what good is a constitution if nobody enforces it?
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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