Entire State of Pennsylvania Held Hostage by Handful of Ideologues Refusing Budget Compromise

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Pennsylvania’s hostage crisis goes into Day 258 Saturday.

Republican lawmakers continue to block the passage of a state budget that was required by law at the end of June 2015.

In fact, Gov. Tom Wolf – a Democrat – released his spending plan this week for the fiscal year 2016-17 – yet the previous year’s budget still has not been approved!

Even after numerous difficult concessions made by Democrats, Republicans still decline approval of any spending plan but their own.

I call this a “hostage crisis” because their actions are not supported by the majority of Pennsylvanians.

The overwhelming majority of residents want a budget. The overwhelming majority of voters cast ballots for Democrats in the last election, but the GOP remains in control of the legislature purely because of gerrymandering. That’s why the majority of residents booted out the former Republican Governor and overwhelmingly approved Democrat Wolf to replace him.

Meanwhile, legislative Democrats lead by Gov. Wolf have made numerous concessions to the opposition. For instance, the Keystone state is one of the richest in the nation in shale deposits yet it is the ONLY one not to tax the industry. That’s right: Ohio, Wyoming, North Dakota, West Virginia, Colorado, Alaska, Louisiana, New Mexico, Kansas, Arkansas, California, Oklahoma, Utah and Alabama all have a severance tax. Only Pennsylvania does not.

GOP legislators receive massive donations from the energy industry and have demanded gas drilling remain untaxed. Though Wolf promised to make shale drillers pay their fair share, the Democrats have conceded the issue in the name of compromise.

Our posterity will look back at us and wonder why we let gas drillers poison our environment. But we aren’t even asking questions about the industry’s impact on our water and soil. Instead, we’re fighting over whether to tax them or not! And still there is no budget!

Additionally, Republicans demand we further dismantle our urban school districts like Philadelphia City Schools. The GOP insists on accountability from the district while making sure no one actually responsible for the schools’ hardships will ever actually be held accountable. The district has been systematically underfunded. Administrative decisions have been taken over mostly by the state. Yet somehow the solution is further privatizing the poorest buildings without any transparency from the for-profit companies that will take over.

Democrats have given in to this outrageous ultimatum. And still we have no budget!

No amount of public bloodletting has been enough for Republicans. As each demand has been met, a new one is leveled. The latest example is a GOP commandment to shortchange state workers pensions.

Republicans insist the Democrats allow them to reduce pension payments to new and current employees. Never mind that this is illegal. Pensions are bills for services rendered. You can’t sign a contract promising to pay X and then years later decide to give less. Pensions are part of a trade off state workers make when they take the job. In essence, state workers agree to lower wages than they would receive in the private sector in exchange for a safe, reliable pension when they retire. You can’t renege on that.

A tentative agreement was reached to reduce benefits for only new state employees, but it failed. Never mind that this measure would achieve no cost savings for a generation. Never mind that it would reduce the quality of employee who would even apply to work for the state. Never mind that just last year Republicans – who controlled both the executive and legislative branches – could have enacted any bill they wanted. But they are only pushing the issue this year to force Democrats to take partial responsibility for legislation they didn’t have the courage to enact alone.

This is not partisanship. These are facts.

On the local scene, there are lawmakers on both sides of the aisle that are willing to put party aside and work for the common good. But at the state level, Republicans almost exclusively are destroying the value of our government. It shouldn’t exactly be surprising that people who got into office campaigning that we don’t need government turn out to do a bad job of running it.

The national banking and investing world have made it quite clear. Standard & Poor’s cited the state’s budget impasse as the reason it withdrew an A rating from the Commonwealth’s public school system. Moody’s Investors Service likewise downgraded the state’s general obligation rating. The legislature’s actions are destroying our national reputation and ability to get things done.

The major sticking point is that Wolf and the Democrats are asking Republicans to restore the almost $1 billion in budget cuts made to education for the last 4 years and continuing through this year’s budget temper tantrum. The GOP had no problem robbing public schools of this money when they also controlled the Governor’s mansion. They are just now adamantly opposed to returning it.

Make no mistake. This has nothing to do with protecting residents’ taxes. Blocking the passage of a budget forces local municipalities and school districts to do state legislator’s dirty work for them and raise local taxes. Legislative Republicans are shirking their duties and pointing fingers elsewhere.

After even worse actions by Republicans in Michigan, it’s hard not to wonder what has become of the GOP? Poisoning the town of Flint? Systematically disinvesting in Detroit Schools? And now in Pennsylvania refusing to pass a fiscal budget!? This isn’t your father’s GOP!

Are state Republicans even a political organization anymore? With actions like these, don’t they more resemble home-grown terrorists? If ISIL took over Harrisburg and shut down the state budget, it would be an act of war. They are spreading chaos for chaos’ sake.

If it weren’t for Gov. Wolf releasing emergency funds through an executive order, many schools would already be closed. Many public services would be shut down. But this can’t last much longer. The Governor can’t govern alone indefinitely.

It is time for the hostage crisis to end. If you live in a Republican-controlled legislative district, you need to let your representative know that you want compromise. Send your legislator back to Harrisburg. Don’t let any of them return to their home districts until the impasse is over. Heck! Thousands should march outside of the capital building keeping a quorum present until the matter is resolved. None of them should get to leave until they DO. THEIR. JOBS.

Until then, all of us in Pennsylvania remain at the mercy of a handful of ideological cowards while our schools go wanting and public services rot on the vine.

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