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Should Harrisburg Move to Biennial Budgets?

by Eric Boehm
Success, it is said, has many fathers. Failure is an orphan. The same is quite true of state budgets. Get one done on time and more or less within balance and there are huge gatherings in the Capitol rotunda to witness the signing of the massive document. There are accolades, pats on the back and atta-boys for almost everyone in the building, while the TV cameras roll.

When one gets done late, or, as happened last year, hardly gets done at all … well, there’s not really anyone lining up to take the blame. Instead, there is plenty of finger-pointing. If you’ve been following the state budget stalemate, you know how this goes.

Progressives and liberals bemoan the outsized influence of conservative lawmakers and tea-party-backed newcomers who have taken control of much of the agenda in the General Assembly. They can continue to pound their metaphorical fists, but they will get little in return for the next few election cycles.

Those who control much of the budget making process see themselves as protecting their constituents—and, indeed, all Pennsylvanians—from higher taxes as a mechanism for paying for higher spending on education and other budget items.

Both sides are right, at least in part. And nothing is going to change in the next few years, so get ready for this same budget nonsense to start all over again on Feb. 9 when Gov. Tom Wolf gives his second budget address.

Is there a better way to go about this important business of budget-making? Possibly.

Before getting the boot from voters, former Gov. Tom Corbett talked about the possibility of switching to biennial budgets—that’s one budget every two years (not to be confused with “biannual budgets,” which would be two budgets every year and completely insane).

Corbett argued that a biennial budget would provide more predictability for government agencies and vendors and would allow more time to work on other pressing matters.

Anyone who has spent time in Harrisburg knows how the state budget process sucks all the oxygen out of competing policy debates. Either it’s part of the budget package or it’s not getting done. If the governor’s staff or a prominent state lawmaker says in June that a certain issue is going to be “put off until the fall,” they might as well have said it’s being put off until next year.

Having budget-free sessions every other year could change that.

Instead of having to strike a deal that includes all the intricacies of a state budget, plus pension reform, plus liquor store reform, plus a minimum wage hike, plus property tax changes and a partridge in a pear tree, each of those things could—and should—be judged on their own merits.

The critics of such a change will argue that biennial budgets won’t actually make anything run more smoothly in Harrisburg, and, hey, they might be right. It’s possible that our $80,000- per-year state legislators will just collect the same paychecks for half the work.

It’s also possible that, in the current hyperpartisan mess, even two years wouldn’t be enough time to craft a budget everyone could agree on. Then what? A four-year budget?

If nothing else, a biennial budget would provide fewer opportunities for legislative pet projects to gain approval. Even a scaled-down budget plan passed by the state Senate in December, contained $80 million in pork.

Wolf is unlikely to push for a biennial budget in his Feb. 9 address, but his team isn’t ruling out support for such a change.

“We’re not opposed to having a discussion about it,” says Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan of biennial budgets. Given the current state of affairs, that’s nearly a ringing endorsement. Though Sheridan is quick to add that Wolf’s team thinks the current process allows for consideration of non-budget issues.

“We think we should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” he says.

Here’s a modest proposal: Wolf could at least mention the possibility of going to a biennial budget in his upcoming address. Perhaps he could have Corbett vouch for why it’s a good idea as well. That would be a rare display of bipartisanship, something Harrisburg desperately needs.

Published (and copyrighted) in Philly Biz, Volume 1, Issue 2 (January, 2016).
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