By State Senator Andy Dinniman
NOTE: This guest column originally appeared in the Daily Local News under the title “It’s time to hold Harrisburg accountable for budget” on January 21, 2016, in the Opinion Section, page A7.
*The legislation referred to in the text below has been introduced as Senate Bill 1124.
The state budget impasse, now in its seventh month, is symptomatic of what’s wrong with Harrisburg. In turn, it offers an opportunity to finally address real and long-standing problems in the legislative and budget process.
Pennsylvania’s budget runs past the July 1 deadline 37 percent of the time, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That is unacceptable and it cannot be allowed to continue. There is no question that entering a fiscal year without a finalized budget has potentially disastrous and widespread impacts. Meanwhile, other states have enacted measures to help avoid budget stalemates and to spur lawmakers to action when partisan gridlock begins to set in.
As a result of this year’s budget impasse and additional research into approaches that have been successful in other states, I am introducing and supporting a series of bills that will move up the Pennsylvania’s budget calendar, impose severe consequences on the legislature and the governor when budgets run late, make more budget negotiations public, and move the Commonwealth’s budget process to a more long-term planning approach.
First, there is no reason for the legislature to wait until the very last minute of the last hour of the last day to try to push through a budget plan. The fact that schools, nonprofits, and social service organizations are often left waiting with bated breath throughout the spring, summer and even fall as lawmakers carry on with a laissez-faire attitude is unconscionable. The fact that weeks and months pass following the governor’s budget address without a final budget bill being introduced or considered is ridiculous. Good-faith negotiations are one thing; Dilly-dallying is entirely another. My bill would require the legislature to vote on and pass a complete budget plan by May 1 – two months before the current deadline – in order to allow additional time for negotiations in case of a veto.
I know what you are thinking: deadlines didn’t work then and they won’t work now. That’s why, my legislation will also require the legislature to remain in continuous session, meeting every day without leave, without pay, without reimbursements, and without per diems, if a complete budget is not passed and signed by July 1. The same goes for the governor, his senior staff and cabinet members. That doesn’t mean salary, reimbursements and per diems will be temporarily suspended and paid out after a budget plan is passed, as is currently the case. It means they’ll be forfeited. It means when the legislature and the governor don’t do their job and don’t meet their constitutional obligations, they get nothing.
In addition, any meetings between legislative leaders and the governor after June 30 must be open to the public. The practice of playing out the budget in “he-said, she-said” leaks to the press is certainly unproductive. No more backroom deals where often no one seems to keep their end of the bargain anyway. It has only served to further partisan gridlock and finger-pointing. If you are going to negotiate with the peoples’ money and the peoples’ business, do it in front of the people.
Furthermore, Pennsylvania ought to move toward biennial budgets, as is done in almost 20 other states, to reduce the uncertainty of the yearly budget process and allow more planning and financial stability for our schools and human service agencies. The legislature serves in two-year sessions; why not work in two-year budgets? In fact, the ongoing impasse basically has us going down this road already, as negotiations and committee hearings on the 2016-17 budget are set to begin immediately following the governor’s address on February 9, even though 2015-16 remains unresolved!
Finally, let me be clear that all sides are to blame for the budget impasse. While the aforementioned changes will no doubt be beneficial, the hardest part will be changing the culture of Harrisburg.
Dragging on a budget process to (or past) the 11th hour does not mean the legislature is working hard. It means lawmakers are falling short. When budgets run late, the legislature, the governor and the cabinet – not the people – should pay. We may not be able to force all involved to agree, but we can create real consequences that will shake up the status quo and give the citizens a budget on time.