Mark Dent’s attempt at grading Tom Wolf’s budget performance thus far contains a useful error I see a lot of journalists making, which is worth flagging because it’s really the lodestar of bad budget reporting.
The trouble starts with reporters’ preference for scoring the budget fight based on whether the budget is passed on time or not. This basically doesn’t matter, but the media is uncomfortable judging questions of policy and political priorities (is there enough education money? should taxes be increased?) because those are located in the realm of opinion, so they prefer to fixate on objective measures like the arbitrary date the budget was due on.
The problem with scoring the budget debate based on timeliness is that it vastly shortchanges the importance of the contents of the budget, which is really the whole game.
In Dent’s view, if Tom Wolf ends up like Ed Rendell, holding firm on his veto threat until December, he’s necessarily losing the budget fight, because the budget just gets later and later.
But then he says right there in the post that Rendell ultimately got what he wanted by holding out for so long. That sure sounds like winning to me!:
No matter how calm Wolf acts about the impasse, he doesn’t want to begin approaching Rendell territory. Rendell is the Michael Jordan of late Pennsylvania budgets, having not passed one on time during either of his two terms, and his performance in 2003 was the equivalent of Jordan’s flu game, something that will not soon be forgotten and ended well but probably hurt like hell while it was going on.
In 2003, Rendell first introduced a budget that he didn’t really like, but the Republicans passed it anyway. So Rendell decided to veto it and held up billions of dollars for schools. That made many people none too happy during the fall, but Rendell ended up getting the tax increase on cigarettes and the use of slot revenue to reduce taxes he wanted when the budget finally passed in December, about six months after it was due.
Corbett had an advantage that neither Wolf nor Rendell had: a legislature controlled by his party. He didn’t receive a single vote from Democrats in the Pennsylvania house or senate but united all the Republicans on his first budget. That was enough for it to pass, a budget that was similar to the one he proposed in March of that year. It contained no tax increases and several cuts, including to public education. The cuts Corbett made throughout his term would end up dogging him as he tried for re-election last year.
By contrast, Tom Corbett “won” the budget debates every year because his budgets were on time, but then he lost reelection because the Republican budgets had shit for contents and the voters didn’t like the results.
Dent gives Wolf only two wolf emoticons for his budget performance so far, but why? He’s so far emulating the successful Rendell strategy, with the veto threat almost certain to crack up the Republicans’ “majority of the majority” policy at some point this fall, making it likely that Wolf achieves several of his key policy priorities at the end of it. And unlike Corbett’s priorities, Wolf’s priorities enjoy popular support.