OFF THE FLOOR
A Capitolwire Column
By Peter L. DeCoursey
HARRISBURG (July 10) – Does the new budget agreement make you wonder about the leadership expectancy of GOP leaders negotiating budgets with this governor?
To a large number of conservative Republicans, the kind who tend to dominate primary elections, the story of the Rendell era in Harrisburg is simple: He proposed lots of spending and borrowing, and RINOs, [Republicans in name only] enabled all of it, plus legalizing slots and raising the income tax.
All three of the Republican legislative leaders tagged with that criticism have been publicly punished for that perception by the activist conservative core of their party.
Former Senate President Pro Tem Bob Jubelirer, R-Blair, and former Senate Majority Leader David J. "Chip" Brightbill, R-Lebanon, might have survived their 2006 primaries, pay raise or no pay raise, if they had not been tagged with that label. One conservative group put up billboards to call Jubelirer "Big Spending Bob."
House Speaker Emeritus John Perzel, R-Philadelphia, got the third word of his current title, the "Emeritus" part, for the same reason.
Five of the six House Republicans who voted against Perzel for Speaker in January said they did so because Perzel had been too good at helping Rendell spend too much, tax too much and borrow too much.
OK, so now Brightbill and Jubelirer are lobbyists. Perzel has no official leadership title, although he still has plenty of clout among leaders and lobbyists around here.
They're all gone, and in a budget where the new Senate Republican leadership team and the House GOP vowed to cut spending below Rendell's proposed $27.3 billion, the total will likely be close to $27.5 billion. That is about a 4.4 percent spending increase.
Lawmakers and Rendell will try to argue that figure down even as they prepare to spend it. They will say $390 million or so of dedicated mass transit funding shouldn't count, even though that same line item, at a lower amount, was in last year's state budget.
And they will say that $120 million in more spending not included in Rendell's announced budget figure of $27.369 billion is part of a supplemental appropriation bill, not the budget. To say that they have to ignore the fact that lawmakers may still change their mind on that, and the lawmakers are not hiding the additional spending.
But if you look at what the state plans to spend this year, even if you subtract last year's supplemental, this is an increase of way more than inflation.
Republican leaders vowed to reduce the governor's proposed spending of $27.274 billion back in February. Instead, this plan will add more than $200 million to it.
Vowing to hold the governor's spending increases down, Republican leaders managed to hold him to increasing the state budget by a mere $1.1 billion increase.
Now, given this governor's nearly limitless desire to spend money on his ambitious plans that he says will move the state forward – he really did propose seven taxes or fees, only to find his prior tax increases were so fruitful he didn't need new ones – I am not trying to say the Legislature didn't work hard and save the state some money.
This budget will leave some $300 million or more unspent, and if the Senate Republicans had not insisted on doing so, Rendell and the House Democrats would have cheerfully spent that cash.
But this is a budget that was negotiated primarily by Rendell and two top GOP senators: Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson and Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware.
Both are considered fiscal conservatives compared to Jubelirer, Brightbill and Perzel. But faced with a governor insistent on either spending big in the budget or enacting new taxes for his energy program and to give all state residents healthcare, Scarnati and Pileggi agreed to a budget that far exceeded what they wanted to give Rendell.
I wonder if that predicament sounds familiar to Perzel? While it's true that Pileggi and Scarnati didn't raise taxes in this budget, Perzel only backed taxes in budgets when the state was sliding into fiscal holes. If he'd have been running the House GOP this year at the budget table, I doubt he would have backed a tax hike when there was a nearly $650 million surplus.
In the eyes of conservatives, Pileggi and Scarnati did a better job of stopping Rendell's big new government programs, so far, than Perzel did. Pretty much all of Rendlel's big new programs of the governor's first term – slots, the Commonwealth Financing Agency, several others – were midwived by Perzel.
But we saw this year that even if the key Republicans negotiating the budget aren't from Philadelphia, governors tend to get to spend a billion dollars more, because, well, governors have huge constitutional muscles in the budget process.
Pileggi and Scarnati are also on the hook to help Rendell create his new energy program this fall in a special session.
Pileggi and Scarnati are betting that even this 4.4 percent budget increase, and a new borrowing program they have committed to create but hope to rewrite, will be offset in the eyes of core Republican voters. They think voters will appreciate the tax hikes and mandates on health care, energy and transportation Scarnati and Pileggi avoided.
Perzel miscalculated the effects the similar deals he made would have on a mere six fellow House Republicans, and lost much of the power that made him the dominant lawmaker in this state Capitol for years.
Maybe Pileggi and Scarnati figured it better and worked it out more closely with their caucus.
But it could be, as I suspect, that being the Republican leader who has to deal with this governor on budgets and new programs shortens your leadership life more than smoking would.
We will find out in the next year or so whether it was Perzel or his job as a top GOP leader negotiating with Rendell that stuck in the craw of many Republicans.