Commentary

Sure the budget jockeying is interesting. But don’t forget it impacts real people | Ray E. Landis

The one-vote majority Democrats hold in the lower chamber could also be more a curse than a blessing in budget negotiations

May 8, 2023 6:30 am
Pa. House Speaker Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia (Photo by Amanda Mustard for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star).

Pa. House Speaker Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia (Photo by Amanda Mustard for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star).

Casual observers of Pennsylvania politics may feel there has already been a great deal of drama in Harrisburg in 2023.

Between the battle for party control of the House, the short tenure of former House Speaker Mark Rozzi, the resignation of Rep. Mike Zabel, D-Delaware, and the on-going debate over how to lift the statute of limitations for victims of clergy sexual abuse, it has been a headline-filled four months.

But the events of late winter and early spring are only a warmup act for the main event of every legislative session in the Keystone State – the battle to produce a state budget.

With new, unproven leaders heading up negotiations, deep ideological differences separating the House and Senate, and Gov. Josh Shapiro pressing an aggressive agenda, the commonwealth could be headed for a messy few months.

Theoretically, this should be a simple budget year. Pennsylvania has a fiscal surplus, thanks to an influx of federal funds and a strong economy, so there should be sufficient money for state government functions, plus some extra for new priorities of legislators and the governor. But looks can be deceiving.

The additional federal funding is set to expire, and if the extreme right-wing faction of the U.S. House Republicans led by Central Pennsylvania’s own U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-10th District, gets their way through the threat of blowing up the world’s economy unless their demands are met, future federal funding could be drastically reduced from pre-pandemic levels.

Republican leaders in the General Assembly stress that because of the potential loss of this funding the Commonwealth is facing what they describe as a “structural deficit.”

They appear to be digging in their heels to oppose new state spending, dismissing many of Shapiro’s budget initiatives, and preparing for drawn-out negotiations.

Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, gave a preview of the Republican negotiating strategy during an appearance at the Pennsylvania Press Club a few weeks ago when he noted a “responsible” budget was more important than an “on-time” budget.

Pa. Senate Majority Leader Pittman talks budget, schools, energy and more: Five Takeaways

The one-vote majority Democrats hold in the lower chamber could also be more a curse than a blessing in budget negotiations.

The House Republican caucus is still licking its wounds after being outmaneuvered in their attempt to hold on to power long enough to get their slate of constitutional amendments on the May primary ballot.

Bitter House Republicans will be united in their opposition to anything that could be interpreted as a victory for Democrats, and they will be looking for ways to split the Democratic caucus. Just one Democrat who threatens to withhold their vote on the budget for a certain priority would accomplish the Republican goal.

All this jockeying for political advantage is intriguing to political insiders, big-pocketed lobbyists, and elected officials looking to increase their share of power.

But the true impact of drawn-out, delayed budget negotiations will be felt most acutely by a broader swath of Pennsylvanians.

Over-worked and under-paid health care professionals have seen pay increases overtaken by inflation in the past few years. Public schools suffer from inadequate state support and an unfair charter school funding system.

Senior centers, non-profit skilled nursing facilities, libraries, and large and small municipalities are all struggling to meet the growing demand for their services. 

Shapiro touts proposed expansion to property tax, rent rebate program for seniors, Pennsylvanians with disabilities

Millions of Pennsylvanians rely on these state-funded entities every day. A protracted state budget battle would eventually threaten the services they provide, but fortunately we’ve seen time and again in budget impasses that provisions are made to ensure those who are most in need are not cut off from critical assistance.

But keeping school doors open and ensuring vulnerable Pennsylvanians are cared for won’t move the needle forward in adequately funding education, long-term care, or other human services. Without a true threat of people being hurt by a budget impasse, those opposed to increasing funding feel little incentive to compromise.

This leaves those who believe providing more state support can improve the lives of people in a difficult position. Compromise would improve the lives of the most vulnerable in society. But compromise should involve give and take, and when opponents of adequately funding state services feel no pressure to do anything but take, future needs are often sacrificed in favor of averting a crisis.

Expect a great deal of talk and behind-the-scenes negotiations over the next few months. But don’t expect the State Senate majority to suddenly recognize the need to increase funding for state supported services. Changes brought about by the political drama of early 2023 can only go so far.

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Ray Landis
Ray Landis

A former spokesman for the Pennsylvania AARP, Contributor Ray E. Landis writes about issues that matter to older Pennsylvanians.

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