ROBERT SWIFT: Capitol Matters: State Budget with an asterisk
HARRISBURG - Call it the state budget signing with an asterisk.
Gov. Tom Corbett claimed bragging rights for signing a new state budget ahead of the June 30 deadline for a second year in a row. The governor signed the budget bill and school and welfare code bills in the Capitol Rotunda about 20 minutes before that midnight hour deadline.
He didn't sign the fiscal code bill - a necessary bill to implement the budget - until Monday and Democratic lawmakers harped on the fact. The fiscal code bill spells out how money is spent under the budget.
Is this a tempest in a teapot or an incomplete budget as far as meeting the deadline is concerned?
The answer to that question has to do with how fiscal code bills have evolved over the years and assumptions that can be made when one party controls the statehouse as the Republicans do now.
Mr. Corbett said he made sure the fiscal code bill had been approved by both House and Senate before going through with the budget signing.
As that ceremony was getting started, the Senate was still in session and several senators were engaged in a acrimonious debate about late-surfacing provisions in the fiscal code bill, including a moratorium on natural gas drilling in Bucks and Montgomery counties. The Senate gave final passage within minutes to the fiscal code bill, 43-6.
Mr. Corbett could count on assurances from his fellow GOP leaders in the House and Senate that the fiscal code was a done deal even if all the formalities of passing a bill hadn't been completed yet. This includes having the presiding officers of each chamber sign the bill. Even with the last-minute drilling debate, Senate leaders would have had a firm grip on the vote count.
So in one sense the discussion is about parliamentary niceties here. But former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell has been pilloried by the GOP for not having on-time budgets during his tenure. Mr. Rendell never enjoyed one-party control. His party was in the minority of both chambers during Mr. Rendell's first term.
So Mr. Rendell couldn't rely on any assurances if a budget bill arrived on his desk without the fiscal code bill. In fact, one of the last hang-ups to final passage of a three-months overdue budget at the start of Columbus Day weekend in 2009 was agreement on a fiscal code bill.
These days the fiscal code bill and other code bills are subject to as much floor debate as the budget bill. That's because they are stuffed like a pinata with all sorts of provisions. The new fiscal code contains the drilling moratorium, the tax code bill, the long-term tax credit for an ethane cracker plant, the welfare code, the phase-in of a county human services block grant program, and the school code curbs on the cost of school superintendent contracts.
As the code bills have become loaded, the debate over them has extended in beyond the debate over the budget bill.
And it's given a whole new meaning to having a budget passed on time.
ROBERT SWIFT is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers, of which The Daily/Sunday Review is a part. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.