Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Say it ain't so.....


Gov. Tom Wolf allowed the remaining portion of the state Legislature’s 2015-16 budget to become law March 23, without his signature. The governor vetoed the accompanying fiscal code, because it “contains unconstitutional provisions, guts important environmental regulations and tries to establish legislative authority over issues that fall under executive jurisdiction,” according to a press release from Wolf's spokesman, Jeff Sheridan.

Pennsylvania’s budget impasse has come to an end. A $30 billion spending plan is in place. So we can stop talking about it, right?

We’re afraid not.

The fiscal battle may be finished, but the war between Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled Legislature may have just begun.

By choosing to let it become law without his signature, Wolf washed his hands of the budget, which he described as unbalanced. The murky conclusion was a microcosm of a messy nine-month tug of war.

Somebody needed to compromise. In the end, it was the governor — kind of. The exception: his decision to veto the fiscal code.

The fiscal code is legislation that accompanies the appropriations bill (the budget) that indicates how portions of the budget will be distributed, including among K-12 schools. Call it a 101-page instructions packet.

Without the fiscal code — the instructions — those dollars cannot be legally appropriated, because there is no signed agreement on how new funds can be spent.

The Republican view

The money tied up in the fiscal code includes $150 million in education funding, dispersed through the school funding formula established by the bipartisan Basic Education Funding Commission. Those funds, instead, are essentially frozen; and the formula, which we have supported, remains in limbo.

Consequently, there will be no increase in school funding from last year, and districts remain in the dark as to how much they will receive.

“Once again, (Wolf) is manufacturing a crisis,” said state Sen. Lloyd Smucker, a Republican serving Lancaster and a member of the Basic Education Funding Commission. “There was absolutely no need to (veto fiscal code). It accomplished no goals.”

Wolf’s decision has also barred schools from receiving aid for construction projects through PlanCon, or the Planning and Construction Workbook, which enables schools to apply for reimbursement when undertaking major construction projects.

Smucker believes the budget was a fair spending plan that forced the government to “live within its means,” instead of raising taxes and budgeting for more money than what’s expected. He called Wolf’s unorthodox approach to signing off on the budget “a bizarre position to take.”

The Democratic view

Democrats in Harrisburg are focused on rebounding from the drastic cuts to education made under Gov. Tom Corbett in 2010-11. During Corbett’s administration, $1 billion in school funding was cut — a figure often disputed by Republicans — with poorer districts more reliant on government support getting hit the hardest, according to Gov. Wolf’s spokesman, Jeff Sheridan. Wolf’s mission for this year was to restore this funding gap, and to implement the school funding formula once equitable funding was restored in 2016-17.

Instead, the GOP “tried to shove it down our throats,” Sheridan said. He called Republicans’ efforts to support schools “disingenuous.”

State Rep. Mike Sturla, a Lancaster Democrat and Basic Education Funding Commission member, shares the governor’s frustration, saying that, in some cases, wealthy school districts got cut less than $1,000 per classroom, while poorer districts got cut more than $25,000 per classroom. He said vetoing the fiscal code was necessary, because implementing the school formula now would “only dig the hole deeper.” Sturla said his goal would not be to take money away from wealthier districts, but to provide all districts adequate funding.

Now what?

In Wolf’s $33.3 billion budget proposal for 2016-17, he calls for a $200 million increase in school funding. Revenue increases would mean additional taxes on personal income, cigarettes and natural gas, plus new taxes on cable television and moviegoers.

We believe schools need to be funded fully and fairly, and that homeowners need some relief from the pressure of ever-higher property taxes that are imposed because the state keeps shifting the school funding burden to the school districts.

Coming up with a balanced budget that accomplishes all of that — and allows for the implementation of the Basic Education Commission’s school funding formula — must be the goal of everyone in the months ahead.

So this time around, we hope the governor and the Legislature somehow can manage to give us both a full, balanced budget, complete with fiscal code.

And that it doesn’t take nine months of a nightmarish game of political chess to make it happen.

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