While a new year marks a new chapter at the halfway point of the General Assembly’s two-year legislative session, the basic storylines remain the same: Campaigns never end and budget challenges remain.
Expect more of the same in 2020.
It’s impossible to separate politics and policy --- one absolutely affects the other. That’s especially true during a hugely important presidential election year when many expect our commonwealth once again to live up to its nickname as the Keystone State.
In describing Pennsylvania, pundits toss around the term “battleground” like it’s a grenade --- and it might as well be when it comes to potential policy accomplishments next year.
Just try to push through any kind of big-ticket items or major policy initiatives at the state or federal levels when the entire congressional delegation faces re-election and the state’s 203 representatives and 25 of 50 senators have to answer to voters.
Sooner or later during the course of a major election year, policy-making shifts and centers on issues that energize political bases rather than unite the masses.
Time is a factor, too, especially at the state level, as the number of legislative session days dwindles. It’s hard to hammer out or vote on compromises when the Capitol is largely void of decision-makers.
Lawmakers who once again find themselves labeled as candidates prefer to be home in their districts, where they can mingle with voters and campaign in earnest. It’s no wonder: Memories of the recent blue and red waves that dotted Pennsylvania’s corners are top of mind.
Finding consensus in government is never easy. It’s not supposed to be. But the process is made even more challenging by a divided government where partisanship runs rampant and the caucuses themselves are split internally.
Both Republicans and Democrats have factions within their elected ranks that lean far to one side or the other, making agreements even within the parties difficult, if not impossible, as evidenced in November by Sen. John Yudichak’s switch from Democrat to Independent. (He will caucus with Republicans.)
To make things more interesting, add some complex math into the equation.
Pennsylvania’s economy may be doing well by some measures, but the state is hardly flush with cash. In fact, year after year of one-time fixes and fund transfers to balance the annual budget have not won the state any accounting plaudits. Just the opposite.
In November 2019, the Independent Fiscal Office, the state’s independent economic watchdog charged with forecasting revenues, predicted the General Fund will carry deficits over the next five years, even with modest job and wage growth in the short term.
The state’s projected revenues are expected to increase, but so are expenditures, continuing the current structural imbalance through the 2024-25 fiscal year. What matters most, however, is this year --- an election year. And it isn’t rosy.
With so much at stake in such a monumental election year, and with the pressure of national politics pushing down on the Keystone State, don’t expect too much fiscal bravery in the battleground that’s Pennsylvania.
Lawmakers will find a way to do more with less, probably without asking taxpayers to help fill in the gaps. Sometimes, in years like the coming one, policy-wise, it’s not really about doing something major --- it’s simply about doing enough without upsetting anyone.
So, expect more creative accounting gimmicks to get a budget done --- whether it’s on time or close to the June 30 deadline doesn’t matter, just so long as it’s not too late. Then it’s off to the races, when the 2020 election marathon suddenly becomes a sprint.
What Pennsylvania looks like in the end is anyone’s guess. But that outcome will play a big role in the politics and policy that are sure to follow, as they always do, endlessly, like the tides.
Kurt Knaus is Managing Director of Ceisler Media's Harrisburg office.