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As fiscal year dawns, let’s wait and see

Pennsylvania’s 2019-20 budget-preparation exercise will be remembered for the general silence that surrounded it.

Even during most of the final days leading up to Monday’s start of the new fiscal year, budget negotiations remained unusually quiet and subdued, although more-detailed information had begun filtering out of Harrisburg during mid-June about specific unresolved issues on which work was continuing.

What a difference a year of higher-than-projected incoming revenue can bring.

Still, the fact that the state had deficits topping $2 billion at some points during the past half-decade or longer remains fodder for uneasiness. State residents have to be wondering what past money transfers and other budget maneuvers might still impact 2019-20 state operations — and whether any will have a longer-term negative impact.

Then there’s the matter of the state’s unhealthy credit rating, which will continue to adversely affect future borrowing. An Associated Press report in mid-June noted that the Keystone State remains among the lowest-rated states by credit-rating agencies, due to troubling budget-management practices.

Perhaps the 2019-20 fiscal year will start to turn that unhealthy situation around, but that won’t be known for some time.

Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that fears about a further lowering of the state’s credit rating have been virtually nonexistent during the latest budget-preparation cycle, and that in itself can be deemed an accomplishment.

For rank-and-file lawmakers, however, the last days of the 2018-19 fiscal year were the subject of much speculation, despite the absence of the kind of partisan friction that had marked Wolf administration budget proposals prior to the more amicable ones for the period July 1, 2018, through today.

Unresolved issues, and the basis for some ongoing disagreements as the 2019-20 budget deadline approached, were Gov. Tom Wolf’s request for $15 million to help counties cover the cost of new voting machines, the governor’s intent to decertify voting machines in use last year, and Wolf’s request that lawmakers authorize the first steps toward Pennsylvania joining a regional consortium dealing with greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants.

The latest budget exercise has mimicked the one covering the fiscal year that ends at midnight tonight in that, for both fiscal years, lawmakers committed themselves to avoiding weeks or months of budget wrangling beyond the budget deadline.

Helping that to materialize was the kind of attitude House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor projected less than two weeks ago when he told a reporter “I’m not going to mention that,” referring to the nature of ongoing disagreements.

“I don’t want to put anybody in a tough spot,” he said.

One theory involving budget negotiations — at least here in Pennsylvania — is that hastiness often doesn’t produce the best budget possible. According to the theory, continuing to work on the budget until virtually the last minute encourages all sides to agree to compromises not possible earlier-on.

When that happens, everyone wins, to some degree. The one 2019-20 budget certainty is not something that is new. It’s that people of this state, like in the past, won’t know how well-crafted the new spending package is until well into the fiscal calendar, as actual incoming revenues are compared with estimates.

The past 12 months have been good for the state’s coffers, but there can be no assurance that the next 12 months will be the same.

Regardless, state residents have grounds for more optimism than what’s been available to them for too long.

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