This is Not Normal

Marc Stier |

It is hard to look at politics in America without being afraid for our future. Everywhere we look, we see extremist movements that reject common standards of argument and evidence that are willing to say anything to advance their cause and that will not compromise even at the cost of creating a public disaster.

What we see so clearly in our federal government is happening in state politics as well. And it is time for us to recognize and name it. The influence of extremist politics in the state budget process this year was not normal. And good government in this state will be impossible if it becomes normal.

This year Pennsylvania faced a serious budget deficit of close to $3.5 billion. And thanks to Governor Wolf and Republican leaders in the Senate, we had a chance to deal with it in a responsible, bipartisan way. But right-wing extremist Republicans in the House, led by Speaker Mike Turzai and Majority Leader Dave Reed, made that impossible.

Governor Wolf presented an austere budget that Republicans barely criticized in February. The House and Senate passed a spending plan in June that was close to the governor’s request and includes about $1.5 billion in efficiencies identified by Governor Wolf. Republican and Democratic Senators reached a bipartisan agreement on funding in July. And yet Turzai, Reed, and their followers among House Republicans refused to either agree or to make a responsible counter-proposal.

Instead they forced the Governor and Senate to accept a proposal that is technically in balance, but not in the long-term interests of the Commonwealth.  It closes last year’s deficit by borrowing $1.5 billion to be paid for with tobacco settlement revenues. Given the unexpected revenue shortfall last year, that borrowing may be necessary. But it was not necessary to close this year’s budget deficit with one-time revenues from raids on special funds and the sale of licenses to expand gaming instead of with new recurring revenues. The failure to raise taxes to balance this year’s budget means that the state still faces an ongoing structural imbalance between spending and revenues. And the fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2018 will start with a deficit of at least $1 billion.

Every feature of the extremism we see in our federal government can be found in the budget strategy of Tuzai and Reed.

They have consistently misled the public about the source of our budget deficits. The extremists claim that state spending is increasing faster than the state’s economy, when every independent source of information shows that the opposite is true: state spending as a share of the state’s GDP has been shrinking. Nor do they admit that the deep cuts in corporate taxes are the main source of Pennsylvania’s budget deficits.

They have shifted their position to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. Extremists on the right voted for a state budget that spends $32 billion and took credit for small increases in spending on education and human services in that budget. And then they turned around and refused to vote for the taxes to pay for it. They demanded budget cuts that they didn’t make when they agreed to the spending plan months earlier. But they wouldn’t specify what cuts they sought.

They have presented fantasies instead of real proposals to balance the budget. The right-wing extremists called for raiding special funds that they said had money “sitting in the bank doing nothing” without doing any serious analysis of those funds. And they kept at it even when real experts on the budget explained why the special funds must accumulate surpluses at certain times of the year.

And, most strikingly, the extremist leaders of the House were unwilling to compromise on their ideological opposition to taxes in order to attain the long-term goal we presumably all share – overcoming our persistent structural deficits and funding the government services that Pennsylvanians clearly want.

It was impossible for our political officials to meet their responsibilities this year without compromise. Governor Wolf, Democrats and many Republicans in the General Assembly were willing to do that. But the Turzai-Reed extremists were not. They would not accept any tax on anyone for any purpose.

And that includes a shale tax that most likely would pass the House if Tuzai and Reed would allow a vote on it. Instead, Turzai and Reed have been willing to use their control over the House to prevent a bipartisan majority from voting for a shale tax and reaching an agreement with the Senate and Governor on a better way to fund the government.

The shale tax, or severance tax, on natural gas drilling is widely supported not only among legislators but the public at large and by budget activists who have sent thousands of letters, made thousands of phone calls, and held over 20 events at legislative offices. There is good reason for this broad support, as the shale tax would be paid almost entirely by natural gas drillers and by citizens of other states who purchase 80% of the gas we produce in Pennsylvania. (Pennsylvanians who heat or cook with natural gas already pay a severance to Texas, West Virginia and Ohio.)

Yet the extremist opponents of the tax, who are amply rewarded by the natural gas drillers with hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions, will not agree. Instead, they make the utterly incredible claim that an industry that has made Pennsylvania the second largest producer of natural gas in the country and that has invested millions in drilling rigs and pipelines to increase production in the state, will leave if asked to pay the same kind of tax that they pay in every other state that has natural gas drilling.

There is still some possibility that a shale tax bill will come to the floor of the House later this month. It has passed the House Finance Committee and Majority Leader Reed has promised that it will come to a vote at some point. (We don’t know, however, if that means this year or in five years.)

It is important that we do have a vote on the shale tax. But the issue surrounding it is far greater than this one tax proposal. The difficulties we have seen in Pennsylvania budget politics this year is largely a consequence of the kind of extremism that plagues our politics nationally.

The future of constitutional democracy in Pennsylvania depends on our not letting this kind of extremism become the norm.