Un-done: Their shaky budget could hurt Corbett and the GOP

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It’s been two years since House Majority Leader Mike Turzai ticked off a list of Republican legislative accomplishments: Castle doctrine? Done. New, strict regulations for abortion providers? Done. Voter ID to benefit presidential candidate Mitt Romney? Done.

A lot can change in two years’ time, even if the political control of the governor’s office and both chambers of the state Legislature do not. But Republican dominance in Harrisburg did not translate into big policy victories this year for Gov. Tom Corbett.

Reform of the pension system for state and public school employees? Not done.

Privatization of the state’s liquor system? Not done.

On-time budgets for Pennsylvania? Not this year.

The $29.1 billion budget for 2014-15 was balanced by the use of one-time revenues and accounting gimmicks — among them, inflating projected revenue growth, delaying the state’s mandated payment to Medicaid managed care organizations and anticipating $125 million in savings from the governor’s Medicaid alternative, a plan that has yet to win federal approval.

Mathematical trickery is nothing new in the budgeting process, and Democrats used it under former Gov. Ed Rendell. But the public probably didn’t expect the same under the leadership of a Republican Party and a governor who preach the gospel of fiscal discipline.

Lawmakers left a lot of revenue sources untapped in the budget they sent to the governor Monday night. Although Mr. Corbett has resisted a proposed extraction tax on hydraulic drillers, some Republicans were willing to discuss it this time around, once it became clear that revenue shortfalls had put a $1 billion hole in the 2013-14 budget and created more problems for the new spending plan.

Despite the need, lawmakers didn’t go for the gas tax, and they also passed on a tax on cigars and smokeless tobacco and funds available for Medicaid expansion under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Of all the legislative defeats related to this budget, Mr. Corbett was most disappointed with lawmakers’ refusal to pass his scaled-back pension changes. He then refused to sign the spending bill before the fiscal year started on Tuesday, and on Wednesday he implored legislators to pass pension reform, saying it “equals property tax relief.” Yesterday afternoon he said he was reviewing the details of the final budget but has not decided whether to sign it, veto some line items, veto the whole plan or allow it to become law in 10 days without his signature.

His reluctance to sign the 2014-15 budget is understandable — there’s a lot to dislike.

Although it contains a slight bump in dollars for special education and more money for early childhood education programs, it’s half as much as Mr. Corbett proposed for the state’s youngest students. The biggest source of funding for school districts, the basic education subsidy, remains flat for another year, as does the amount for state universities.

Even a valentine for middle-class families that Mr. Corbett proposed in the form of a $25 million merit scholarship does not survive intact, but is reduced to $5 million.

The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources also takes a big hit. Mr. Corbett had proposed a 10 percent cut, but the final budget contains only $15 million, half the sum allotted last year.

The governor’s fellow Republicans have done him no favors this year, not on policy matters and not on the final budget. Later in the year, without the leverage of a $29.1 billion spending package, the prospects for any legislative slam-dunks are dim.

All at a time when Mr. Corbett faces a strong Democratic challenge to his re-election and could really use some items in the “done” column.

Meet the Editorial Board.

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