If you’ve celebrated at least fifty 4th of July’s in this world, it’s a pretty good bet that at some point in your life you’ve said something like “Back in my day” or “I remember a time when” or “In the good old days.” Hopefully, you got more than an eye roll…
Depending on how many of those five decades were spent watching the Pennsylvania state budget process, what happened in the final days of June may have elicited such a thought. So what does that mean.
Pennsylvania’s budget season has always been about more than just the General Assembly passing a state spending plan and all the requisite enabling bills for the upcoming fiscal year. Usually, there’s also this month-long intricate puzzle of policy matters where the fate of one issue hinges on the vote of another issue (usually not super-related, if at all). A deal for one industry is struck, but it’s quickly blown up because of a subsequent deal struck for a different industry. But, all the issues in play generally have two things in common – they have tangible economic impacts for proponents/opponents, and they have LOTS and LOTs of lobbyists.
To be clear, the 2021-2022 state budget just passed provides a solid fiscal road map for commonwealth spending in the coming year. Not only does it make historic investment in the state’s public education system, it also remembers how important the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program is for families who seek other options for their kids. In addition, the spending plan recognizes increasing transportation needs, and it underscores just how devastating the pandemic was for Pennsylvania nursing homes. Of course, the budget also supports a long listed of less publicized priorities – things like stable funding for key economic development programs and targeted support for essential human services providers. And, it makes sure that the commonwealth is prepared for future fiscal challenges by reserving a significant portion of the federal government’s COVID-19 relief funding.
So what’s different about this year from previous budget years?
The difference seemed to be that the annual full-throttle June throwdown by traditional special interests (natural gas, gaming, etc.) was largely replaced by a demanding focus on issues with very little middle ground and virtually no opportunity for legislative deal making – things like election reform and post-COVID policymaking. The point isn’t whether these policy matters have merit, it’s that they are almost 100 percent polarizing. Again, the point isn’t to debate who’s right or wrong on these issues, it’s simply to say there just isn’t much room for compromise. And, when there’s no room for compromise on the biggest non-budget issues gobbling up big chunks of the lawmaking calendar, it’s almost impossible to parlay votes on those front-and-center matters into ensuing legislative deals.
Look, maybe there was all the usual deal making, and maybe all the industries normally bidding for their top priorities all walked away with key wins. Maybe they were simply off the radar screen because their dots were so much smaller than the dots of the issues drawing the most attention. Could be, but it just doesn’t feel that way.
Whatever the case, if you find yourself harkening back to a different time this summer, and part of that harkening includes thinking that June 2021 in the State Capitol wasn’t quite like the ones before it, you’re probably on to something.