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Budget Framework …time to build?

WARNING – EXTENDED ANALOGY: An architect wants to build a house in a new development, but is told two contractors must be hired to complete the job.  The architect designs a five bedroom contemporary, all-electric with solar panels, carpet throughout, and wants enough money left over to buy the lot next door for future expansion.  All three agree on the size and composition of the foundation, and manage to get that laid. 

But after seven months, the contractors and architect are changing plans, one working on a ranch house, another a bi-level, the third still working on that contemporary.  The contractors order hardwood floors and gas heat.  They start trenches for a pipeline through the back field, debate over using union labor, try to level the yard, and park their trucks in the driveway, unintentionally preventing supply deliveries.  Meanwhile, the contractors’ employees are arguing that they shouldn’t have to listen to the contractors. Sound familiar?

Two weeks ago, legislative leaders and the Governor announced that they had reached a “tentative framework,” as public cries for resolution to the budget impasse reached new levels. But it is clear that much work remains if a true compromise budget is to be passed

The governor and leaders said they hoped a deal would be complete by Thanksgiving, but acknowledged more time and work was needed.  Despite the avowed agreement, it soon became clear that each of the parties had different ideas of how to put the package together.

In announcing the agreement, Wolf said, “I think we need to move beyond this impasse so that our schools can get funded and our human service county organizations can get the funds they so desperately need.” Spokesmen said commitments were secured over boosting education funding, property tax reform, making a down payment on fixing the state’s deficit, and reforms to the state liquor and public pension systems.  But he acknowledged that he preferred an increase in the personal income tax and a natural gas severance tax, not the 1.25 percent increase in the state sales tax now on the table.  There was still major disagreement on how to distribute the agreed-to $400 million in education funding increases as well and whether it was a one or two year agreement. And they disagreed on how much property tax reform was to take place, who would get it, and how school districts could still increase local taxes.  Then there’s that question of what privatization of the liquor system entails…

While the parties are meeting every day, and both House and Senate are moving bills so they can quickly be amended and moved to a final vote, the kinks keep coming.  This week, the Senate moved a municipal pension reform bill that was not agreed to by the Governor or Senate Democrats, and announced plans to vote on legislation to eliminate the property tax as a means of education funding – using both sales and income taxes.  Meanwhile Speaker Mike Turzai led the House in passing a liquor privatization bill that moved well beyond agreements with the Governor and Democrats.  In addition to the House moved a gambling expansion bill that won’t bring in significant revenues until 2016-2017, angering groups from taverns to clubs to veterans’ organizations, and have other major issues now on the agenda including medical marijuana and resolutions over security and Syrian refugees. And by the way, the rank and file members are pushing back against the leadership in all four caucuses.

About 20 bills need to be approved to finalize a budget.  But it’s starting to look a lot like Christmas on the budget clock, rather than Thanksgiving.