Democrats who control the state House of Representatives made a smart decision last week when they passed the state's 2010-11 budget 100 days ahead of its June 30 deadline, putting the matter in the hands of the Republican-controlled Senate with time to spare.
House Appropriations Chairman Dwight Evans, embarrassed by last year's long-delayed performance, set budget hearings early this year so the House could complete its work ahead of schedule. Some department directors testified about their needs even before Gov. Ed Rendell introduced his $29 billion budget in February.
Don't think for a minute, though, that this means the state's budget is resolved. Senate Republicans have serious differences with the measure, and some House Democrats object to plans for leasing additional state forest land for natural gas drilling, which would generate some of the budget's revenue.
The package passed on Tuesday was almost identical to Mr. Rendell's proposal, but it sidesteps the most ambitious plans the governor announced in conjunction with it. The extensive overhaul of the state's taxing structure is not necessary to balance the budget because, even if enacted -- a very long shot -- the revenue generated would be set aside for future shortfalls due to declining federal revenue and increasing pension demands.
Still, Republicans in both chambers have said that the increase of more than $1 billion over the current budget is too much, especially when state revenue is lagging behind expectations and federal stimulus funding ends in 2011. Expect arguments over allocations for basic education, which Mr. Rendell wants to increase by $355 million, and other programs as well.
Cynics would suggest the Democrats merely punted the budget to the upper chamber early to pass along blame for any intransigence, but optimists -- and Mr. Evans is one -- are correct in noting the obvious advantage in getting started well ahead of the June 30 deadline.
The best response from the Senate would be to dive into the discussions right away. After last year's debacle -- the framework was adopted 101 days late and final details weren't completed until six months past due -- Pennsylvanians are out of patience and eager to see a budget delivered on time. And sooner would be even better.