The majority won in Pennsylvania this week.
After 9 months of bipartisan bickering, the state finally has a 2015-16 budget.
And it’s almost exactly the same spending plan favored by the majority.
The majority of lawmakers, that is.
Voters, however, wanted something much different.
They wanted it to heal almost $1 billion in cuts to public schools. They wanted it to be balanced and not to spend more than it takes in. They wanted everyone to pay their fair share.
Like any public spectacle, the conflict centered around two teams: Republicans and Democrats.
The Republicans refused to raise taxes, even after they had previously reduced state revenue to a place where it could no longer provide the services taxpayers expect. The Democrats wanted to raise taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations who were getting away without paying their fair share, thereby increasing services to a point citizens have come to expect.
The result? Nine months of finger pointing.
The GOP-controlled legislature passed the same budget over-and-over again, while Gov. Tom Wolf (a Democrat) kept vetoing it.
There was a brief moment when they almost agreed on a compromise budget, but GOP lawmakers just couldn’t stomach a tax increase if it didn’t include an almost definitely Unconstitutional measure to shortchange state workers pensions.
This week Wolf agreed to let pretty much the same Republican budget become law without his signature. Otherwise, some of the state’s more than 500 school districts would have had to close. He said he hopes to focus on next year’s budget which is due at the end of June.
Wolf came into office on a tidal wave of support from across the state to unseat the previous Republican governor. The people couldn’t have been more clear – fairly fund education and get the fiscal ship in order. But since state legislative districts were redrawn under the previous administration to gerrymander lawmakers, voters were silenced.
Which brings us to the inescapable question: why are voters putting up with this?
“When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.”
The above quote, attributed to Thomas Jefferson, sums up the proper relationship between governors and governed.
Our lawmakers aren’t afraid of us. Are we afraid of them?
The budget passed this week does increase education by $200 million. but that’s still far below what Republicans cut five years ago. Apparently, they aren’t afraid voters will make them pay a price for this. They don’t think we have the guts to unseat them in their safe gerrymandered districts.
They figure that since most of the voters in their districts are registered Republicans, they won’t have to answer for shortchanging school children – especially those at poor districts which receive more state support.
They figure other Republicans like themselves don’t care about poor black kids. Are they right? You tell me, Pennsylvania!
Likewise, they think GOP constituents don’t care if the rich and corporations pay their fair share of taxes. They think we’ll buy the lie that business works kind of like getting pandas to mate at the zoo. We have to do everything we can to make them comfortable or else no little panda cubs.
So the rich and corporations get sweetheart deals while the rest of us – even Republicans – have to tighten our belts. What say you, Pennsylvania? You buying that?
While no one thinks the budget should be unbalanced, they are betting you will let them push the blame onto the other party. There is a $2 million deficit because Republicans didn’t want to raise taxes. Never mind that they opposed measures to fairly make up the difference. Never mind that they have no problem cutting services so that you don’t get your taxes worth from state government.
Well, Pennsylvania? Are you swallowing that whooper!?
We’ve become used to blaming our politicians. Both Democrats and Republicans love to rag on our elected officials.
But it’s not really their fault.
We’ve let it get this way.
Sure, the odds are stacked against us. Corporate money floods legislators campaigns so they can buy endless ads convincing us to vote against our own interests. Legislative districts are drawn so that a minority of Pennsylvanians get a majority say.
But we still have the last vestiges of a functioning Democracy here. We still hold elections, and they still have consequences.
If lawmakers felt like they would be held accountable, it would change their actions. Why do you think they didn’t enact that terrible pension plan last year when the GOP controlled both the legislature and the governor’s mansion?
They were afraid of taking the blame. They were afraid voters of both parties wouldn’t put up with it. Republicans only had the guts to push it through if they could force Democrats to vote for it, too. That way, people would have no choice but to blame both parties and not just the GOP.
We need to make them feel that same fear for under-resourcing our schools. When Republican voters in gerrymandered districts show up to their legislators offices en mass and demand equitable school funding, that’s when things will change.
When Republican voters care as much about poor black kids as they do about rich white kids, that’s when things will change. When Tea Party citizens demand the rich pay as fair a share of the tax burden as they do, then things will change.
But so long as we pretend politics is a sporting event and you have to stand by your team, things will remain as they are.
Democrat. Republican. Tea Party. Progressive. These are nothing but labels that divide us. Throw them away.
Turn off the TV. Stop listening to talk radio. Crumble up the op-ed.
Go to the voting booth with the only thing that matters.
Vote with your heart.