There are lots of rumors about a budget deal flying around Harrisburg but few details and even less assurance that the deal will stick, that is, that votes will be found to approve in in the House and the Senate.
What little we hear is concerning. And the best way to understand our concerns is to look again at why we have not reached a deal until this point—extremists control the Republican Party in the House.
There is a broad agreement among Democrats and most Republicans that Pennsylvania has a structural budget deficit (which simply means that year after year revenues will not pay for state expenditures, either those approved by the General Assembly this year or those demanded by Pennsylvania voters). There is broad agreement among Democrats and most Republicans that we need new tax revenues to close the deficit this year and in the future. And there is broad agreement that a severance tax should be a major source of those new revenues.
If democracy (with a little d) were to prevail in Harrisburg, this broad agreement would have resulted in a detailed agreement on legislation long ago.
But a determined group of extremists Republicans in the House, led by Speaker Mike Turzai and Majority Leader Dave Reed, have blocked that agreement. They are extremists in two senses. First, they reject tax increases. Instead they call for unspecified budget cuts, raiding special funds, raising one-year revenues from gaming expansion and relying on what we’ve called phantom funds, like non-existent budget lapses, to balance the budget. Second, they are simply unwilling to compromise to avoid public disaster. They wouldn’t compromise to avoid a credit downgrade. They don’t seem willing to compromise to avoid deep cuts in funding for education and human services.
The rumors we are hearing is that mainstream Republicans in the Senate and the House are ready to compromise and basically let the extremists win to avoid disaster. They are willing to accept a budget deal with little or no recurring revenues.
We hope the rumors are false because this would be a bad budget for Pennsylvania. Without new recurring revenues we will be looking at another budget deficit for next year. And since it is very difficult to raise taxes in an election year, next year will bring us one more budget that does not a structural deficit that grows larger every year.
There is an alternative. We understand that the Democratic and Republican proponents of a severance tax in the House are less than ten votes from the 102 they need to bring a bill to the floor that can become a vehicle for a severance tax.
It is imperative that the effort to create a bi-partisan budget agreement that includes a severance tax continue a bit longer before we let extremists win.
It’s especially time for sensible Republican in the House and Senate to stand up and say they won’t be pushed around by Mike Turzai, Dave Reed, and others who put their extremist ideology over the good of our Commonwealth.