Budget clock ticking

Pennsylvania lawmakers and Gov. Tom Wolf still have about 2¢ months to meet the June 30 state budget-preparation deadline, and most state residents probably view that as more than enough time for the commonwealth’s legislative and executive branches to complete that vitally important, constitutionally mandated task.

But based on past budget exercises, don’t bet on “smooth sailing,” even with this year’s legislative and gubernatorial elections set to judge Harrisburg’s performance.

Crunch time, which Webster’s dictionary defines as “a critical moment or period when decisive action is needed,” already should be construed as having begun, since incoming revenue remains anemic.

Thanks to borrowing and an increased reliance on gambling revenue, Harrisburg was able to piece together a purportedly balanced 2017-18 spending package. State residents should be interested in watching how much money might need to be borrowed to balance the 2018-19 budget, as well as whether gambling revenue projections have been realistic or not.

On Jan. 2, the online news and information service Capitolwire reported that Pennsylvania revenues, halfway through the 2017-18 fiscal year, were continuing to produce solid performance, although Capitolwire acknowledged that concerns remained for the second half of the fiscal year, which ends June 30.

The validity of those fears was revealed on April 2 by Capitolwire, when the news service reported that General Fund revenue for March was $274.2 million — 6 percent– less than anticipated.

Compared with March 2017, last month’s collected revenue amounted to a decrease of $97 million, or 2.2 percent.

Numbers like that aren’t “the end of the world” in a budget the size of Pennsylvania’s. The state faced a $2 billion fiscal shortfall a year ago when 2017-18 budget preparation got underway.

But the newly reported weak numbers are troubling nonetheless amid the many questions that continue to exist regarding the Keystone State’s financial future.

In February, Wolf unveiled a 2018-19 budget proposal totaling about $33 billion.

Wolf, who is seeking re-election, expressed optimism three months ago, saying that he envisioned better days ahead for the state’s finances. In an Associated Press article published in the Jan. 7 Mirror, the governor was described as seeing the state government’s post-recession deficits in the rear-view mirror.

However, the governor again won’t be getting his proposed severance tax on Marcellus Shale drilling, and his plan for a per-capita levy on municipalities depending on state police protection presumably is dead also.

There’s hope, at least in the Legislature, that increased revenue from new gambling options and additional casinos will be a fiscal savior for the state during the coming year, but don’t place too big of a bet on such an outcome.

The May primaries are just over a month away. That’s when the state’s voters will go to the polls to select party nominees for the Nov. 6 general election.

With Easter having come and gone, it’s time for the Legislature and Wolf to gear up toward resolving their many spending differences.

With the distractions that the election and the campaigning leading up to it create, the urgency for tackling the unfinished work quickly, aggressively and cooperatively is obvious.

Crunch time is here, and the voters shouldn’t look kindly on avoidable roadblocks that prevent a timely budget settlement, wasting money as well.

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