Pa.’s budget impasse is a binge-worthy — and totally fixable — summer drama | Friday Coffee

Maybe it won’t be fixed in 59 minutes. But history shows that this, too, shall pass

July 14, 2023 7:15 am

Gov. Josh Shapiro speaks at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023. (Commonwealth Media Services)

Pennsylvania’s three-week-old budget impasse is the ultimate summer drama.

Think about it: It’s totally binge-worthy. With its high-stakes implications, it makes for compelling water cooler and social media conversation. And by the fall, there’s a better than 99% chance we’ll all be obsessively watching something else anyway.

But right now, with not much else to fill the summer news vacuum, speculation on whether Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro has torched his relationship with the Republican-controlled Senate, dinged his image of cool-headed professionalism, and tanked his chances of one day becoming president (already an absurdly premature narrative) is all that anyone in this town can talk about.

But a deep exhalation — and a look at the history books — strongly suggests that Shapiro, just like Geralt of Rivia in the Netflix fantasy drama, The Witcher, will find his way out his current predicament, and peace and sanity will be restored on The Continent.

It might just take a while — instead of TV’s very efficient 59-ish minutes. And it means everyone, especially Republicans who are acting like your kid after you tell him you’re not going to Six Flags this weekend (but will eventually), needs to come to the table.

With that lengthy (and potentially tortured) set-up out of the way, let’s take a look at the facts on the ground, and see how they stack up against past budget debacles.

The Background: You’ll recall that the reason the Commonwealth is in the predicament it currently finds itself, is that Shapiro, facing a firestorm of criticism from organized labor, said he’d line-item veto a $100 million appropriation for a private school vouchers program.

Republicans accused the Democratic governor of breaking a deal he made with them. Shapiro has maintained that Senate Republicans failed to close the deal with Democrats who hold a narrow, 102-101 majority in the state House, the Capital-Star’s Peter Hall reported on July 6.

Right now, Senate Republicans are refusing to sign the $45.5 billion general appropriations bill that both chambers approved earlier this month. That’s a procedural technicality required to send the bill to Shapiro’s desk.

At the three-week mark, this isn’t even the longest budget impasse. The debate over former Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s first budget in 2015 dragged on for months. Former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell waged a series of protracted budget battles with (like Wolf) a General Assembly entirely under Republican control.

Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee (Facebook/City & State Pa.).

The Trust Thing: In the days since Shapiro’s spending plan went into the ditch, Republicans on both sides of the Capitol have argued that the Democratic governor has shattered their trust, rendering it likely impossible for them to work together in the future.

“How do we work together moving forward if we can’t count on the simple handshake agreements?” Rep. Seth Grove, of York County, and the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, asked.

An aggrieved Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, protested that the GOP gave Shapiro “all the goodies he wanted,” in exchange for his promise to deliver on the voucher plan.

“The truth is there was a deal regardless of what Gov. Shapiro says publicly, and he knows there was a deal,” Ward said.

Hang on.

While Republicans may feel legitimately double-crossed the by the Democratic front office, the current furor doesn’t hold a candle to an absolutely incandescent exchange in 2004 between Rendell and then-Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer, R-Blair, who carpet-bombed the Democratic governor with obscenities, the Morning Call of Allentown reported at the time.

From The Call:

“F– you, governor. You’re a liar,” [Jubelirer] snarled during a late-night meeting that ended the legislative session. “You’re a liar. Your staff are liars. … F– you.”

Republican Jubelirer jabbed his finger toward Rendell’s chest, cursing the Democratic governor while other legislative leaders and their top staff looked on, jaws agape.

Rendell’s state police security detail went on alert, rushing extra troopers to his office. Jubelirer, his staff, and other caucus leaders headed for the door.

Eventually, cooler heads prevailed. And Rendell and Jubelirer and Republicans were able to get over themselves and pass legislation for the balance of the Democrat’s two terms, notably the legalization of slot machines in 2004.

So as bad as things seem right now, they have been far, far worse.

The ceiling of the main Rotunda inside Pennsylvania’s Capitol building. May 24, 2022. Harrisburg, Pa. (Photo by Amanda Berg, for the Capital-Star).
The ceiling of the main Rotunda inside Pennsylvania’s Capitol building on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. (Photo by Amanda Berg for the Capital-Star).

The political future thing: There’s no doubt that the breakdown in budget talks is a rare misstep for Shapiro, who ran a remarkably mistake-free campaign for governor in 2022, and who was riding a national buzz with the swift reopening of a collapsed portion of Interstate 95 in northeast Philadelphia last month.

As was the case with Rendell and Wolf before him, Shapiro could see a dent in his approval ratings if the stalemate drags on into the late summer or early fall.

During his budget standoff in June 2015, Wolf saw his approvals standing at 39% in a Franklin & Marshall College poll released at the time.

As the debate over Wolf’s rookie spending plan extended into the summer and fall, the Democrat saw his overall approvals dip to 36% in an October 2015 Franklin & Marshall poll.

Admittedly, Shapiro came into the standoff with his overall approvals at 57% in a June 28 Quinnipiac University poll. Public approval of Shapiro’s budget management clocked in at 51% in the poll of 1,584 registered voters. The poll had an overall margin of error of 2.5%.

It’s also worth noting that lawmakers will hear increased criticism if a stalemate drags into the dog days of summer, as state programs start to run out of money, school districts start to cry for help, and county governments, many controlled by Republicans, sound the alarm.

But even if Shapiro’s approval numbers dip further, the odds are that he’s unlikely to suffer a long-term political price. Both Rendell and Wolf, each battered by bruising budget battles, respectively cruised to re-election in 2006 and 2018.

Rendell beat former Pittsburgh Steelers great Lynn Swann 60%-39%, while Wolf vanquished former state Sen. Scott Wagner 57%-40%. Three-plus years later, voters clearly weren’t holding a grudge.

What’s Next: Well, The Witcher is taking a bit of a mid-season breather and will return July 27. And it looks like the Legislature, knowingly or not, is following suit, with the House and Senate currently not scheduled to return to Harrisburg until September. Though it’s likely the two chambers could return earlier in the event of a breakthrough.

House Majority Leader Matt Bradford, D-Montgomery, has suggested that he thinks the two chambers also could benefit from a cooling off period.

“I think there’s going to be some period of time where we’ve got to reset,” he said.

And that may well be what it takes. All great dramas are nothing without a resolution. And history suggests that this, too, shall pass.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.