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Gov. Wolf’s scary fairy tale, but it’s for real

By John Baer

The 47th governor of Pennsylvania, the 14th Democrat to hold the office, is suddenly making some noise.

To some it sounds like clucking. For as we pass 100 days with no state budget and no signs of settlement, Gov. Wolf is playing the Little Red Hen.

You know the story. Couldn’t get anybody to help her do anything so she did it all herself.

Well, we now have Wolf: “Who will help me raise money to clean up the deficit I created last year?”

“Not I,” said the House Republicans.

Or: “Who will help me balance our new budget with a shale severance tax?”

“Not I,” said the legislature, including House Democrats and moderate Republicans who couldn’t even move a shale-tax bill from committee.

“Then I’ll do it myself,” said the Little Red …, I mean, said Wolf. And he announced he’ll pay for the deficit and balance the budget all on his own.

For starters, he’ll borrow $1.25 billion to be paid back over 20 years with profits from our arcane booze system run by the Liquor Control Board (LCB), which, along with our legislature, is another suspect arm of a less-than-laudatory government.

Wolf’s action joins a mix of long-brewing Harrisburg crazy. It raises questions: about governing by fiscal fiat; about why (if it’s such a good idea) it wasn’t done before yet another bond-rating downgrade; about how it could create a new hole in an annual budget currently fed with booze profits; about long-term repercussions, financial and political.

For example, Sen. Scott Wagner, a candidate for the GOP nomination to oppose Wolf next year, used campaign email to offer his view of the borrowing plan. Wagner wrote of Wolf, “He’s out of his mind.”

Wagner, you may have heard, isn’t known for subtlety.

The conservative Commonwealth Foundation says leveraging LCB profits to pay down a loan could well mean the end of liquor privatization efforts.

This will send House Speaker Mike Turzai, long the privatization crusader and a potential GOP candidate for governor, even further around the bend than his normal travels often take him.

(Perhaps you caught reporting by my colleagues Angela Couloumbis and Liz Navratil: an irate Turzai spotted pounding on Wolf’s Capitol office door on a day Wolf was in Philly. Talk about huffin’ and puffin.’)

And, since Wolf suggests he can, through various actions, balance the budget “indefinitely,” maybe we should find a way to just get rid of the nation’s largest “full-time” legislature and save $313 million a year.

Speaking of which, the legislature is not in session. Again. Left last Wednesday. Due back Oct. 16. Columbus Day break, don’t you know. You maybe get a day off. They take a week-plus – while, by the way, continuing to be paid, perked, and per-diemed throughout months of failing their constitutional duty to pass a budget.

All part of the pricey, head-shaking lunacy that is Pennsylvania governance.

Remember, we’re talking $32 billion in spending the legislature approved in June and Wolf allowed to become law – without any way to pay for it.

Sound sane to you?

I asked Wolf, during a phone chat Saturday, “How you enjoying the crazy thus far?”

He said, “I did what I did because it’s time to move on. … I will balance this budget.”

His ire was clear. He stressed he’s had “enough of this nonsense,” and he all but bit off his phrase of the week, the month, the year: “This is not the way government is supposed to work.”

He’s right. It isn’t. Yet it happens so often. With never any fundamental reforms. Never any accountability connected to the process. The fact we pay them (Wolf takes no salary) for their dereliction of duty is madness.

But the fact we always seem in sad fiscal straits, no matter who’s in charge, might be a Pennsylvania thing.

I mentioned Wolf is our 14th Democratic governor. Our first Democratic governor was also a Wolf, George Wolf (1829-1835). Among the things he was noted for? New taxes to pay off big loans. Where, one wonders, are lessons of history?

PA. BUDGET WATCH 2017

 

As seen in philly.com (Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News). Story written by John Baer, Staff Columnist, baerj@phillynews.com