Merry Election Season? Not so far

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State House GOP budget play doesn’t seem to make political sense

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

It’s that time of year — you can see the indications of it everywhere.

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It’s election season. What, you thought I was talking about Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanza?

After just a few weeks off from the local 2015 elections, politics has moved back front and center, even if the events of 2015 will clearly shape the upcoming election — especially with a short run up to the April primaries.

While everyone can’t seem to talk enough about Donald J. Trump, and the resulting ratings/click thrus and whathaveyou, I’m going to be more boring first before getting the current GOP presidential front runner. I’m sure if you need your fill of Trump, you can put on CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and watch him salivate over the next Trump-driven “Breaking News” item.

But me? Not so much. I’m going to talk about that wacky state budget process, which maybe, finally, comes to an end next week.

More than five months past the deadline, there’s no state budget in place. Apparently, Republicans in the state Senate are fighting with Republicans in the State House, who in turn, appear to have turned into a pair of rival factions themselves.

After reportedly agreeing to a $30.8 billion budget framework with Gov. Tom Wolf (along with some pension reform and some progress on liquor privatization) and the state Senate, the Republicans in the house changed their mind. Or — as some would tell you — hung their primary negotiator, Rep. Dave Reed out to dry. While not perfect from anyone’s perspective, Wolf got his education funding and Republicans got progress on pensions — a hybrid retirement system and some steps toward privatization of the state liquor system.

Apparently, Speaker Mike Turzai didn’t like the deal Reed worked out, and decided to pass his own, lower $30.3 billion budget — without any deal on pensions or liquor.

That budget, of course, got gutted again by the state Senate this week, which promptly replaced the state house’s numbers with the higher $30.8 billion. Gov. Wolf made it clear that he would veto any bill with a lower number than the agreed-upon framework (and did veto a $30.2 billion budget earlier this year). With little in the way of options, it is beginning to appear that the house GOP is folding and will give in and back the $30.8 billion budget.

I don’t entirely get the political play here. To about 10% of voters (mostly Republicans) any compromise is unacceptable. The other 90% just want the state to get its work done, and accept that some compromise is unavoidable.

Already, schools are borrowing money to stay open — and some may have to close after the holidays, due to the lack of state funding, if this budget deal collapses again. Anger at the state legislature is building in the community and it seems like every incumbent state house member is giving free palm card talking points to Democratic candidates in a year where it is very likely that Democratic turnout will be very high.

Worse, this is the same sort of play that helped cost fellow Republican Gov. Tom Corbett his job when the House wouldn’t play along with the state Senate and Corbett, and blew any chance to privatize the state liquor operation or deal with the massive pension mess.

Democrats, in the fall election, are going to have a compelling argument: the dysfunctional, extremist House needs to go. That could put seats in and around Chester County in play, including the open seat in 158th, not to mention the perilous 74th District seat held currently by Harry Lewis, Jr.

With a likely big Democratic turnout by a unified party behind Hillary Clinton — as loved by most Democrats as she is despised by Republicans — the GOP can’t really afford to be shooting itself in the foot like this. Something to bear watching as the year goes on.

Also worth watching is the three-way primary for the 158th District among Republicans. Lenny Rivera, Eric Roe and Perry Bentley all have announced they will run for the seat — and it could be interesting to see how ideology plays out in this race.

Roe appears to be the most conservative of the three, staking out territory well to the right of retiring state Rep. Chris Ross. Bentley, said to be Ross’ choice, and Rivera appear to be somewhat more moderate — and likely a better match for the fairly moderate district. If Roe wins the nomination,  which wouldn’t be shock as the GOP primary voter tends to be more conservative, a moderate Democrat with good name ID might just have a fighting chance to win the seat.

The primary system increasingly is pushing GOP candidates to the right, as they must endure “purity tests.” And while it not an issue in some parts of the state, Chester County is becoming both increasingly Democrat by registration and moderate in general.

* * *

So, GOP presidential candidate Donald J. Trump spoke before the Commonwealth Club as a fundraiser for the Pennsylvania Republican Party yesterday. There were a few protests, Trump appeared (the press and public were kept out) to have stuck to his usual shtick and the world kept on spinning on its axis.

While yesterday’s speech wasn’t a big deal, Trump has a lot of Republicans, well, freaked out.

Although there are certain segments of the population that love Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip, facts-be-damned style, it doesn’t seem to play very well in places like Chester County, with an educated, sophisticated electorate. They are basically establishment Republicans vastly more comfortable with the likes of Jeb Bush, John Kasich and such.

Trump is a double-edged sword. If he wins the nomination, he’ll likely be a disaster for the party (his comments this week show a deep lack of appreciation for the U.S. Constitution, among other things) and could damage candidates up and down the ballot. If he loses, but runs a third party effort, it will fracture the vote and all but guarantee that Hillary Clinton is the next president.

And while it is diverting to focus on the latest Trump comment (as someone who worked in and around New York City in the media back in the 1980s and 1990s — I’m well past Trumped out), his rise points to a bigger structural problem the Republican Party has brought onto itself in recent years. Sen. Lindsay Graham, far from liberal identified the issue in a recent interview in The Boston Herald:

“Well there’s about 40% of the Republican primary voter who believes that Obama was born in Kenya and is a Muslim. There’s just a dislike for President Obama that is visceral. It’s almost irrational,” Graham told the Herald.

To be sure, there is much to argue with the Obama Administration — but the fact that the Hawaii-born, Christian president is denied legitimacy by a segment of the population speaks to a bigger problem. There is a segment of both extreme right and left that feels that the majority shouldn’t rule, that they, and only they, have the answers. It is an impressive arrogance to assume that one knows it all.

Thankfully, most folks seem to know that there are rarely “right” answers, but often “least wrong” answers, best sorted through the push-and-pull of negotiations. Without conservatives to act as speed bumps, liberals would push too far, too fast and likely off a cliff (see the late 1970s); without liberals, conservatives would concentrate power and money in too few hands and stymie progress (see now).

Moderates, by far the largest political majority in the country, have been marginalized. Sickened and frustrated by the extremism of the right and left, they’ve dropped out of the process. One hopes that they will reengage and push the country back toward a sustainable, middle of the road course.

America, and be extension, Pennsylvania, works best when there when liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats can survive and thrive within their own parties.

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