Legislature should start legislating

Decision-making quicksand within Pennsylvania’s state government continues to impede progress in completing work related to the $32 billion 2017-18 state budget — the spending part of which was passed and signed into law about a month and a half ago.

There’s no sign that the current stalemate over fully funding the annual spending plan is anywhere close to being resolved.

Commonwealth residents should be hoping that that observation is wrong. If not, there could be troubling implications lurking over the financial horizon: the inability to pay for all that the budget authorizes.

That would add to the $2 billion-plus budget shortfall that greeted lawmakers early this year when they began work on the 2017-18 spending document.

The commonwealth’s fiscal year begins July 1.

Despite the big shortfall and despite a funding proposal advanced by the state Senate since the spending package was passed, members of the state House are back in their home districts doing who-knows-what.

One thing is certain: They’re not legislating.

Even with a Senate plan on the table, House lawmakers haven’t demonstrated any urgency to return to the Capitol to attack the unfinished budget business and try to mount some semblance of compromise in the process.

Instead, House members aren’t scheduled to return to Harrisburg until Sept. 11, although there’s speculation they might reconvene sometime during the latter half of this month.

It’s right to argue that no lawmakers should have left Harrisburg until this most basic responsibility of their elected service was 100 percent complete.

As the 2016-17 budget proved, there can be no loose ends left untied by this state’s Legislature or they might not ever be resolved.

For the 2016-17 budget, the General Assembly sought new gambling options as a source of badly needed additional revenue, but the fiscal year ended on June 30 without agreement on how the gambling issue should be addressed.

That was part of the reason why the 2017-18 beginning-of-the-year shortfall was so huge, and there’s no sign that the House and Senate are close to full agreement on what the gambling menu should be, going forward.

Both houses of the Legislature need to come to grips with all that’s necessary to extract the commonwealth from the fiscal ditch in which it’s mired and return Pennsylvania to a road paved with enough recurring revenue to keep the state free of constant budget turmoil.

The House and Senate reportedly remain far apart on how to eliminate the biggest chunk of the budget-funding gap that revenue from increased gambling opportunities wouldn’t resolve.

In the funding plan it introduced last month, the Senate proposed a mix of taxes — including one on Marcellus Shale gas drilling and others on consumers’ utility bills — and borrowing $1.3 billion against Pennsylvania’s annual share of the 1998 multistate settlement with tobacco companies.

The House, in an attempt to avoid imposing any higher taxes, wants to combine $1.5 billion in borrowing with hundreds of millions drawn from off-budget programs.

Amid the unfinished budget business, it’s interesting — albeit troubling — that the Senate had no problem tacking onto its budget-funding plan a provision to give lawmakers more financial leverage during future budget standoffs with the governor.

No quicksand was in sight for that. Fiscal irresponsibility within Pennsylvania’s government must end, but that won’t happen with lawmakers at home soaking up the summer sun.

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