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February 18, 2016

How a Rote State Budget Negotiation Turned into a Historic Partisan Gridlock

By Katherine Duncan

Pennsylvania is not in the midst of a governor’s race, a fact that’s not immediately clear by how active outside groups are currently in the state’s political landscape.

Pennsylvania is in the midst of a “historic budget gridlock”: on one side, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf, who proposes increasing taxes to close a “massive deficit;” on the other side, a Republican-controlled legislature that is committed to closing the deficit but without raising taxes. Gov. Wolf’s language has been harsh, admonishing lawmakers to “take on the crisis we are facing” or look elsewhere for employment. Republican House members have responded in kind, equating what they characterize as the governor’s unreasonableness with being in “fantasyland or Neverland or wherever he is.”

This standoff is further compounded by numerous outside special interest groups, which are spending heavily to influence the outcome of the state’s proposed budget—now at a partisan standstill six months into the fiscal year.

Gov. Wolf gave a budget address before a joint House and Senate session in the Pennsylvania Capitol House chambers on Tuesday. It did not go well, as the governor’s calls for steep tax increases were met by Republican lawmakers with disbelief, name-calling and eye-rolling.

What has proved one of the most contentious points in Gov. Wolf’s new budget proposal, especially among tax-averse GOP legislators, is the proposed personal income tax increase from 3.07% to 3.4%, retroactive to January 1 of this year. Gov. Wolf argues that such tax hikes are necessary to balance the previous year’s budget and close the state’s ballooning deficit, now over $2 billion.

The main outside player on the Democrats’ side is America Works USA, a section 501(c)(4) social welfare nonprofit created by the Democratic Governors’ Association in 2011, that has sent targeted mailers in specific Republican legislators’ districts and run TV and radio ads accusing GOP lawmakers of supporting cuts to education spending and increasing the deficit.

Several outside groups are involved on the GOP side of the budget standoff, including an infamous arm of the Koch brothers’ political network, Americans for Prosperity, along with Citizens to Protect PA Jobs, an affiliate of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, and a lesser-known group, The Growth and Opportunity Fund, which is led by Dan Meuser, former Revenue Secretary under prior Republican Governor Tom Corbett. Last summer, at the beginning of what has now escalated to what Gov. Wolf has characterized as an imminent “fiscal catastrophe the likes of which we have never seen,” Americans for Prosperity emblazoned highway billboards with “Governor Wolf wants birth to death taxation,” a critique of Wolf’s proposed sales tax increases that apply to a broader swath of goods, including diapers and caskets.

This isn’t an election, but according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, voters are receiving targeted mailers attacking specific legislators, as if the public would soon be heading to the polls to cast a vote. What specific actions these ads and mailings are supposed to incite is not entirely clear, aside from serving as a bullhorn championing each side’s views.

In this case, big money and outside groups may well have further divided an already-divided legislature, ultimately to the detriment of voters and taxpayers. Though no concrete data specifically point to outside groups’ financial involvement exacerbating the budget deadlock, the sheer vitriol and stubbornness emanating from both sides (in addition to the ample, alarmist local news coverage)—and the months-long spiral into chaos—suggest that such third-party participation certainly isn’t helping.  School budgets, for example, remain unfinished, leaving teachers and students in the political crossfire, the real losers in this battle.  

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