Legislators’ retreat leaves state in limbo

If the Pennsylvania Constitution absolutely forbade lawmakers from recessing after the June 30 budget-preparation deadline if the budget process remained unfinished, state lawmakers could not have staged their shameful retreat from Harrisburg last week — the House of Representatives, for at least a week; the Senate, for who-knows-how long.

Yes, Pennsylvania purportedly has a $32 billion budget that Gov. Tom Wolf allowed to become law without his signature. However, lawmakers went home last week without completing work on ensuring that the budget has enough money to fund everything that it contains.

Its revenue shortfall has been estimated at various times since January to be between $2.2 billion and $3 billion.

The fact that House and Senate leadership condoned the retreat — indeed, encouraged rank-and-file lawmakers to go home and reflect on the 2017-18 budget’s unfinished business, rather than remain on the job at the state Capitol — provides a damning picture of the quality, abilities and commitment of that leadership.

Is this Legislature so committed to maintaining political image and attitudes — that includes both Republican and Democratic lawmakers — that it never will be truly responsible from a fiscal standpoint?

At this late date, five months after Wolf revealed his budget proposal, the Legislature still is deeply divided on how to accomplish that.

Amid it all, Wolf can’t be exonerated from his role in what still can be classified as a budget debacle.

Some people who’ve watched the budget process might believe that Wolf did the right thing by permitting the “budget” to become law without his signature, which averted what could have become fiscal chaos. But people with the state’s best interests in mind are left pondering whether a budget veto would have kept lawmakers in Harrisburg to finish the work that should have been completed by June 30.

Wolf expressed optimism Wednesday about the prospects for ending up with a good budget agreement, and he made the debatable observation that his administration acted legally in waving through a spending plan lacking the tax collections to sustain it for the entire fiscal year.

Wolf’s confidence is puzzling; the Legislature never fully tied together all of the important loose ends that were needed to balance the 2016-17 budget.

Meanwhile, incoming revenue consistently fell short during much of the 2016-17 fiscal calendar.

The Legislative leaders’ decision not to set absolute dates for lawmakers’ return to Harrisburg fed speculation and pessimism about when the budget’s unfinished business might be resolved.

Taxpayers also should be concerned about the Legislature’s proposal to borrow money as a quick fix for dealing with the big deficit.

With borrowing come costs and interest payments for which the taxpayers will be responsible, and that borrowing, if carried out, wouldn’t address the problems contributing to the ever-growing fiscal shortfall.

The shameful exit from Harrisburg is giving lawmakers time to rest and recharge for the budget work that lies ahead, but, all considered, they don’t deserve that respite.