We have a budget problem in Pennsylvania. You could call it a budget "crisis," but that makes it sound like it just sort of happened, like a hurricane or male pattern baldness. You could call it a budget "impasse," but that suggests two grown up sides that can't find a compromise. Perhaps budget "screwup" or budget "failure so stupid it is raising the collective blood pressure of the entire state."
If it seems like we've been budget fiasco for a long time, that's because we have. Today is Day 168 of the ongoing budget not-done-on-time event.
There was a time when I would have agreed with a bi-partisan assessment. In the early stages, the GOP controlled PA House and Senate wanted to act as if the previous GOP governor had not been decisively kicked to the curb. Newly-elected Governor Tom Wolf, whose previous work experience is running a successful family business, did not initially seem to grasp that he is not a CEO who can order the legislature around as if they are his minions.
But many of the parties got on a learning curve and seemed to make progress.
At first it seemed like a manageable catastrophe. After all, we're used to this-- we've had five late budgets in ten years.
True, there was fallout. You may remember that the Chester Upland school district, underfunded by the state and sucked dry by charters, had to ask its teachers to work for free when the state missed its first subsidy payment. Ha. Those were the days, when the budget baloney was only fifty days old.
Meanwhile, many other districts turned to loans, lines of credit, or simply ate up whatever savings they had in the banks.
As the clock ticked, Wolf and the Senate GOP worked out a deal. Each gave up some features that they had wanted in the budget, but that's what happens when grown-ups negotiate. But as that budget gathered steam, it became evident there was still a major obstacle-- the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Noted for their lack of leadership, the House GOP could not get its act together. Or, I should say, cannot get its act together, because as of today, their act is still not together.
By this time, the state should have paid out almost all of its school support money. At this point, it has paid out $0.00. The school districts of Pennsylvania are collectively billions of dollars short.
They can get parts of their act together, including the part that allows them to double take-over some more Philly schools. Philadelphia schools were taken over by the state decades ago, but the state has incredibly failed to magically transform them, so the state would now like to take them over from the state (you can read more about that foolishness here).
Now some schools, including a few districts just up the road from me, have decided they may just stay closed after Christmas break rather than borrow more money and incur more fees and interest.
Only--ha!-- the joke is on them because the Associated Press now reports that Pennsylvania's budget snafu is so spectacular that school districts may not be able to borrow money even if they want to!
"While we consider school aid to be a priority state expenditure, the budget stalemate has led us to conclude that Pennsylvania's state aid payments are no longer a reliable and stable source of funds," Standard and Poor's wrote.
The final icing on the cake? Believe it or not, it is now time for school districts to begin working on their budgets for 2016-2017. Yes, the state's convoluted system requires school districts to declare soon if they want to raise taxes above the index, although that presumes funding based on property taxes, which is one of the bones of contention in the budget and of course schools right now as I type this have no idea how much money they're eventually getting from the state for THIS year, let alone where they will stand going into NEXT year.
Will the House budge? At last count the House GOP was about half a billion dollars and a few ideological points away from the Senate GOP, and while many Pennsylvanians are ready to move past wringing hands to wringing necks, there are also folks cheering the House on for "standing firm." Note that Pennsylvania is a spectacularly gerrymandered state, to the point that while Democrats win more votes, Republicans win more seats. But gerrymandering invariably means that politicians must play to their base, and many House Republicans are doing just that.
It is hard to follow the unfolding mess because so much of the action takes place in back rooms. But there is literally no sign that this is going to be resolved any time soon. In the meantime, however, there is the real possibility that the incompetence of House politicians may actually bring education in Pennsylvania to a stumbling, gut-wrenching, collapsed-in-a-heap halt.