Budget bungle: The Pennsylvania House returns due to a crafty maneuver

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Two weeks after a self-congratulatory group of lawmakers watched as Gov. Tom Corbett announced his success in signing a state budget before the June 30 deadline, members of the House of Representatives are headed back to the Capitol on Monday.

So much for that job well-done.

It turns out the meager achievement of enacting the $28.4 billion budget as required by law had a big asterisk beside it, the sort of qualifier that belongs with athletic achievements made possible by the enhancement of steroids.

Yes, the spending plan was duly passed and signed. It enables state officials to allocate the resources brought in through various forms of taxation. One of the companion bills that typically are enacted in tandem with the main budget bill is the fiscal code, which sorts out which tax sources are used for which programs. Without all of the pieces, the budget is unbalanced.

But shenanigans in the House undercut the fiscal code's progress in the Senate. It seems someone -- at least one report blamed Speaker of the House Sam Smith -- added an unrelated promise to the bill. The obscurely worded, offending paragraph tucked into the 59-page bill said Republican leaders in both the House and the Senate intend to vote by the end of October "to pass legislation establishing a fee schedule of rates and charges to replace those currently being charged by licensees under the act of April 8, 1937 (P.L.262, No.66), known as the Consumer Discount Company Act."

What's that, you say?

That would be a new bill legalizing payday lending in Pennsylvania.

The short-term, high-interest loans are vilified by consumer advocates because of their capacity to drag low-income borrowers further into debt, and the practice is not legal in the state right now. No state has legalized payday lending since 2005, but the industry has been pushing hard in Harrisburg.

The promise included in the House version of the fiscal code would not have been binding, but its inclusion nonetheless was reprehensible. The Senate, feeling hoodwinked, made the right call by stripping out the language on payday lending.

Now a vote in the House is necessary, and it's a safe bet that no taxpayer will shed a tear because members have to go back to the Capitol after starting their summer recess.

Unfortunately, though, the elimination of the payday lending provision is only a temporary victory. There is no assurance that a new measure introduced in the fall will be defeated. Expanding a practice that hurts Pennsylvania consumers will remain as bad an idea in the fall as it is now.

But that's a fight for another day. The agenda right now should be passing a clean bill that does nothing but what is necessary to complete the budget process. And there's no reason for lawmakers to start bragging if and when they finally complete that task.



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