Pennsylvania's approaching primary means legislators less likely to act on budget
January 18, 2016 12:14 AM
Matt Rourke/Associated Press
The 2016 campaign season will open next week when state legislative candidates begin circulating their nominating petitions.
By Kate Giammarise / Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau
HARRISBURG — The 2016 campaign season will open next week when state legislative candidates begin circulating their nominating petitions.
And with it, some believe, will come the close of meaningful legislative activity, including votes on the state budget — at least for a while.
Since any vote on raising sales or income taxes is a tough vote for most elected officials under any circumstances, action to raise revenue becomes less likely with each passing day, many Capitol observers believe. In other words, Gov. Tom Wolf’s long-sought increased additional funding for education is less likely, at least in this fiscal year’s yet-to-be completed budget.
It could also mean this year’s budget stalemate is resolved with some kind of two-year budget plan that rolls this fiscal year and next fiscal year’s budget into one agreement.
“It’s hard to fathom a way in which the two budgets don’t have a confluence now,” said David Patti, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Business Council, a statewide business advocacy group.
All 203 House members who wish to retain their seats are up for election this year, as is half the Senate, or 25 members.
The primary election — which in some districts functions as the de facto election — is April 26.
But candidates can begin circulating and filing their nomination petitions within a matter of days — starting Jan. 26. The last day to circulate and file petitions is Feb. 16.
“The window for [a] tax increase probably closed in November or December,” said Michael Manzo, longtime chief of staff for former House Speaker Bill DeWeese and now a vice president at the public relations and lobbying firm Triad Strategies.
After months of a budget stalemate, the Republican-controlled Senate in December passed what was essentially a compromise budget with the higher education spending Mr. Wolf has sought. It also passed a pension overhaul that Republican lawmakers have been seeking. But the deal fell apart when House Republicans revolted over a vote to raise taxes — exactly what taxes and by how much was never clear — and the pension bill failed in the House because of bipartisan opposition.
The budget that ended up on Mr. Wolf’s desk wasn’t the one he wanted and at the end of December, the governor signed into law $23.39 billion worth of state spending, using line-item vetoes on the remainder of what had been a $30.26 billion Republican-crafted plan.
Since then, Mr. Wolf has repeatedly called on lawmakers to return to Harrisburg and pass the $30.8 billion spending plan he prefers.
“Our position has not changed,” Mr. Wolf’s spokesman, Jeffrey Sheridan, said on Thursday. “We would hope making investments in education, restoring what was cut and fixing the deficit do not fall victim to politics.”
But many believe the calendar will now dictate what is politically possible.
“Generally speaking, if you look at tax increases in the past, they have been done in odd-numbered years, so they are as far away from elections as possible,” Mr. Patti said.
Arguably the most recent tax vote was in November 2013, when legislators voted on a major transportation bill that raised revenue through removing a cap on the oil company franchise tax paid by fuel distributors, a move that is expected to be passed along to consumers — at least in part.
“The longer we go into the election year, the harder it is for any lawmakers to make any tough decision,” Mr. Patti said. “Not just a tax vote, but a pension vote for some of them, a liquor vote for some of them,” referring to pension and liquor overhauls sought by Republican legislative leadership that would likely need support from at least some Democratic lawmakers.
Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks, said, “We certainly do have a responsibility to govern, first and foremost, aside from what part of the year it is, and if it is an election year. Part of that is sometimes making tough decisions. That being said, we are less than two weeks away from collecting signatures.”
Every candidate for the House must have 300 signatures from registered voters of their party who reside in their district to get on the primary ballot. Many officials go door-to-door to collect them, and many gather far more than the required 300.
“If there’s controversial issues that you are voting on, right before you go to collect signatures, that does make it more difficult,” Mr. DiGirolamo said.
“The closer you get to elections and putting yourself on the ballot, legislators — being human and being politicians — definitely think twice on things that they are going to be voting on,” said House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin. “How you vote is part of your record and what you stand for. [Many Republican members] did not run to increase taxes or for more spending.”
The tax issue in particular, “in general, that is a much more visceral issue in a Republican primary than in a Democratic primary,” veteran Republican consultant Christopher Nicholas said.
Any tax vote is also seen as thornier for Democratic members from the southwestern part of the state.
“Any tax increase is going to be more difficult for southwest Democrats. They are in more challenging seats, and you have seen Republicans pick up a lot of seats in Western Pennsylvania,” Mr. Manzo said.
However, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, said at least some revenue could come from taxes that are generally viewed as more politically palatable — such as a cigarette tax. Some revenue could also be raised from a proposal to allow wine sales in grocery stores, he said.
“The revenue package was not all about tax increases,” Mr. Costa said. “We already had the votes to do it. The votes were there.”
“To get a majority, it’s a terrible time for any tough vote,” Mr. Patti said.
Mr. Manzo said he foresees a scenario where the Legislature “will take care of the lose ends from this fiscal year and next fiscal year all at once. It is really hard to see it playing out any other way.”
Kate Giammarise: firstname.lastname@example.org, 717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.
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