By Lowman S. Henry
Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal
There is a lot of wailing and rending of garments these days over the hyper partisan atmosphere in both Harrisburg and in Washington, D.C. Conventional wisdom holds that if Republicans and Democrats would just work together we could solve the problems confronting our state and nation.
But there is ample evidence that when Republicans and Democrats do work together the outcome is worse than no action at all. The recent collusion between the parties in the Pennsylvania Senate to pass a revenue plan to fund the 2017-18 state budget is a prime example.
So, let’s pull back the curtain and take a look at how elected officials from both parties work together to preserve their own political careers at the expense of taxpayers.
In theory Republicans stand for smaller, less intrusive government and for fiscal responsibility. Were that actually true the debate in Harrisburg over how to balance the budget would be focused on cost-savings and spending reductions. Instead, leaders of both parties in the state Senate have focused solely on what taxes to increase and on an even more irresponsible course of action – borrowing from future revenues to cover current expenses.
The GOP holds 34 of 50 seats in the Pennsylvania Senate. That is a veto-proof majority that again – in theory – should be able to pass a fiscally responsible state budget. The sordid truth is that Harrisburg is not divided by political party, but rather is governed by an incumbent party dedicated first and foremost to political self-preservation putting up a united front against taxpayers and job creators.
Thus that 34-seat Republican majority was rendered irrelevant when leaders of both parties went behind closed doors to craft a revenue package. What emerged was a toxic cocktail of tax hikes that would harm businesses such as gas drillers by implementing a severance tax; and add to the burden of homeowners by hiking taxes on gas and electric bills. Oh, and that wasn’t enough to sate the appetites of the big spenders – they approved borrowing hundreds of millions from future tobacco settlement revenue meaning our children and grand-children will get to share in the pain.
When the final vote was held the revenue package passed 26-24. How the Senate got to that number is the truly disgusting part of the story. There is an old saying that you should never watch sausage or legislation being made. But we will. If all Democrats had voted for the revenue package it would only have taken ten Republicans to craft a majority. But fourteen Republicans went astray.
The goal was to provide political cover to four Democrats in competitive districts. It is all about incumbent protection. Party leaders conspired to determine who would vote for and who would vote against the bill. Those Republicans and Democrats voting for higher taxes and massive borrowing all represent “safe” seats because they are relatively immune to serious electoral competition.
A few Republican Senators who actually favored the bill, but who would face conservative primary challenges if they voted for higher taxes were given a “pass” to vote against the plan. Those Republicans representing more moderate districts and less likely to face a serious primary challenge voted for the tax plan. Likewise Democrats deemed vulnerable to a tax vote were also given a “pass.”
So everyone wins – except We the Taxpayer.
And, of course, “leadership” of both parties all voted for the revenue package on the mistaken belief that they have to be “responsible” and provide revenue to fund a state government beset by out-of-control spending. Real leadership and a truly responsible course of action would have been to craft a budget that spends within our means rather than go looking for every way possible to wring more tax dollars from Pennsylvania’s working families, senior citizens and small businesses.
The bottom line: the Senate’s revenue plan vote was nothing more than business-as-usual backroom Harrisburg politics of the type that cynically preserves incumbents at taxpayer expense.
Remember that the next time you hear someone crying out for “bi-partisan cooperation.”