This year’s race for state treasurer may be the most crucial of the 2016 election.
No, wait! Don’t go! Come back!
OK, it’s not as if the state treasurer has access to nuclear launch codes. But the outcome of this year’s treasurer’s race may tip the balance of power in an already topsy-turvy Harrisburg budget fight between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Who wins the race “certainly matters, because different treasurers will view themselves as independent to a greater or lesser extent from the governor,” said Michael Dimino, a law professor at Widener University’s Commonwealth School of Law.
Such questions have become more pressing since December, when Mr. Wolf approved only part of the budget that was sent to him by legislators. The resulting spending plan left the prison system short of money, prompting the governor to ask the Treasury Department to pay bills beyond what the budget anticipates.
“A decision had to be made: Are we going to fund corrections or not?” Treasury lawyer Christopher Craig told a state Senate committee Monday. “The treasurer does not have the luxury of waiting for the Legislature to act.”
While agreeing that prisons had to remain in operation, Senate Republicans said Treasury’s move usurped their own budgetary power. Westmoreland County Republican Kim Ward worried that by tapping Treasury for funds, “the governor … would have all the power. Because you send them a budget, they line-item what they want to, and things get funded anyway.”
If the budget dispute continues into 2017 — as seems possible — it’s unclear whether the next treasurer would go along.
“There will be a new treasurer next year,” Mr. Craig said. “I don’t know what his views are going to be in terms of paying things.”
The current treasurer, Timothy Reese, was nominated by Mr. Wolf and confirmed by the Senate to replace Democrat Rob McCord, who resigned before pleading guilty to federal charges of using the office to improperly gain campaign donations. In written Senate testimony, Mr. Reese stressed the office’s independence and said, “I am accountable only to the taxpayers.”
Some Republicans seem dubious.
“This treasurer was appointed rather than independently elected, so I think they were put on the spot” by Mr. Wolf’s request, said Senate Republican Majority Leader Jake Corman. “If someone is independently elected, they may have a different opinion.”
Indeed, the Republican seeking the treasurer’s office, Berks County businessman Otto Voit, signaled Wednesday that he was skeptical about using Treasury to spend over budget.
Mr. Voit said he couldn’t speak to all the factors that may have contributed to the Treasury Department’s actions. But “[i]f the treasurer spent one more dollar than was authorized in a signed budget between the governor and the Legislature, I would question whether he’s working outside the provisions of the constitution. … I absolutely would not have done it given those set of facts.”
Had he been approached with an urgent demand for prison funding, Mr. Voit said, “I would say, ‘We better get on a conference call with the governor and [legislators]. Because I don’t have legal authority to act on my own.’ ”
Democratic candidates sounded cautious. Asked his opinion on how Treasury has handled the dispute, Albert Baker Knoll said, “I don’t think it’s helpful to step into this imbroglio. … I’ll have plenty to say about this in the months ahead.”
“I don’t want to supplant the legislative role unless there are extraordinary circumstances” that would harm “public safety, public health or education,” he said. Schools shouldn’t be deprived of “money that is expected, and that they are having to borrow, that’s an unfair burden.”
Joe Torsella, the other declared Democrat in the race, pledged that if elected he would “independently review this issue with legal counsel.” In the meantime, he said, “I urge all political leaders in Harrisburg to work to keep government functioning, and I join Governor Wolf in calling for Republicans in the General Assembly to act responsibly [and] to stop playing politics with the budget.”
Such political differences are one reason we elect treasurers in the first place, said Bruce Ledewitz, a constitutional scholar at Duquesne University. “We want to keep the executive branch fragmented,” he said, so no branch has too much power. “A Republican would presumably not collaborate with the governor,” he added, “but even if you elect a Democrat, it’s an independent office.”
Of course, anything could happen between now and when the next treasurer takes office. A lawsuit could prompt the courts to rule on a treasurer’s authority to spend over budget. Mr. Corman said it “remains to be seen” whether the Legislature will file a suit.
The Legislature and governor could follow some advice Mr. Craig offered Monday, establishing a “default budget” procedure that kicks in if a new budget isn’t passed. In the meantime, though, the dispute offers an upside for those seeking the treasurer’s office.
“These candidates have an opportunity to make a splash in a race that garners not much attention,” Mr. Ledewitz said. The current dispute “really opens up the possibility for a whole different kind of campaign.”