HARRISBURG — Call it the first act of the governor’s race.
The slow-motion arc of Pennsylvania’s budget negotiations — with a backdrop of a huge deficit, potential credit downgrade and two-week-old deadlock — has served as a sort of first debate stage for Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the would-be contenders hoping to contest Wolf’s re-election bid next year.
It is an early opportunity to boost their candidacies, and hurt an opponent, in a setting being watched closely by insiders.
The material is rich: Wolf unsuccessfully sought to get the huge Republican House majority to sign on to a tax increase that Wolf said would be big enough to avert another downgrade to Pennsylvania’s battered credit rating.
Wolf then allowed a nearly $32 billion budget bill to become law, despite the fact that his own budget office says the state’s existing tax collections can’t support it for a full fiscal year. He did not sign it, he did not veto it and he did not use his line-item veto power to strike out some of the spending in it to bring it into balance.
How all the gubernatorial hopefuls are treating the matter is a study of contrasts.
Wolf has kept a low public profile, saying as little as possible.
Wolf has refused to discuss the ins and outs of negotiations, or cast blame, saying only that his administration continues to negotiate and that he is optimistic about getting a deal.
House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Marshall Township, also has kept a low profile, and said little publicly. But given the chance to blame Wolf, Turzai leaped.
Turzai pinned the spending increase on Wolf — a 3 percent bump that nevertheless won Turzai’s vote as well as huge GOP majorities in the House and Senate — and for being unable to seal a deal that does not include a tax increase.
“The governor is going to have to step in and find non-tax increases to make sure that he gets the spend that he wants, and he’s got to step it up, and get into the mix,” Turzai said in a rare and brief interview while shuttling between offices in the Capitol.
Turzai — who has all but declared his candidacy — struck a similar theme as the two declared Republicans in the race: Paul Mango, a former health care consultant from suburban Pittsburgh; and state Sen. Scott Wagner, the founder of a trash-hauling company who won the York County seat in 2014.
Mango lobbed criticism in a statement released through his campaign, saying, “Wolf is hiding under his desk to avoid responsibility for our budget debacle by simply letting this sham become law without his signature.”
Even so, Wolf’s letting the bill become law was quietly welcomed by many Republican lawmakers. Asked in the interview what he would do, Turzai did not give an answer.
Wagner — who voted against the spending bill — weighed in just hours before Wolf let it become law last midnight Monday. Standing in Wolf’s empty parking spot in front of the Capitol, Wagner filmed a video posted to his campaign site on Facebook.
“We’re in there trying to balance and pass a budget for the state of Pennsylvania, but where’s the governor?” Wagner said to the camera.
Both Wolf’s campaign and his office declined comment on the question of whether they believed Republican gubernatorial hopefuls had sought to take advantage of the budget situation for political gain.
The competing agendas of gubernatorial candidates under the dome have elicited grumbling from some lawmakers. Some quietly questioned whether the deadlock is a reflection of that. Some see the size of Pennsylvania’s financial difficulties and wonder how it could have been different.
“It’s not politics at all,” said Rep. Scott Petri, R-New Hope. “This is an awful, terrible budget to make work. To me, it has nothing to do with politics. It all has to do with substance.”
Still, whatever comes out of it could become useful material for the candidates in the upcoming campaign.
“We’ll see the results and the candidates then say, ‘it’s this person fault’ or ‘that person’s fault,’ “ Petri said. “But pointing fingers at this moment is not going to be helpful.”
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