Pennsylvania’s fractious lawmakers have found something they can agree on: vacation.
Although bickering among the chambers and parties in Harrisburg left a necessary piece of budget legislation unfinished as of the legal deadline of June 30, it took House members another two weeks to change out of their flip-flops and briefly get back to work.
Even then, 15 of the 203 representatives didn’t show up to vote on the budget-enabling fiscal code this week.
And while the legislation was key to a temporary rescue of the Philadelphia schools, that didn’t keep three city Democrats from being marked absent.
The rest of the House found itself cruelly roused from its planned summerlong slumber thanks to its own conniving leadership.
Not content with pulling the plug on the Senate’s attempted expansion of Medicaid through the fiscal code — a last-ditch attempt to accomplish something before an ill-deserved recess — the House’s Republican majority added a special-interest sop: a promise to legalize predatory payday loans later this year.
A House GOP spokesman told WHYY that the pledge was nothing, really — “a Post-it Note, a note to self, a bookmark,” bearing “no meaning except to legislators.”
Well, except to legislators and the payday-lending lobbyists who organized a February golf outing and fundraiser for House Speaker Sam Smith, R.-Jefferson, in Pebble Beach, Calif.
Smith’s sticky note forced the Senate to pass the code again, whereupon Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R.-Delaware, rightly saw to it that the lenders’ promised payday was removed from the bill.
That in turn set in motion this week’s shuffle of shame, in which the House trudged back to Harrisburg to pass the bill once again.
This sad little coda robbed lawmakers and the governor of their last shred of a claim to an achievement this season.
Gov. Tom Corbett has vigorously touted the timely budgets of the past two years, in contrast with his perennially tardy predecessor, Ed Rendell.
Last month, Corbett presided over a third ceremony in which he signed the budget and proclaimed his punctuality throughout the land, and to all the inhabitants thereof.
But thanks to the drawn-out legislative epilogue, it was only that: a ceremony.
The substance of the budget isn’t particularly promising either.
Fitch Ratings responded by downgrading Pennsylvania’s debt, citing the budget’s structural imbalance, limited reserves and inadequate pension funding as revealing “an inability or unwillingness on the part of political leaders to make difficult fiscal decisions.”
The eternal postmortem return of the legislature has served to underscore just how little Harrisburg has produced this year.
Lawmakers and the governor could have found a way to pay for work on roads, bridges and mass-transit systems; turn alcohol sales over to the free market; address unfunded pension liabilities; expand working-class health coverage; and shore up public schools in crisis.
But they failed on every count.
And now it would seem the legislature has finally quit for the summer and resumed its vacation — if only one could tell the difference.