Time Running Out on Pennsylvania Budget Negotiations

Pennsylvania's large Republican majorities in the House and Senate on Monday went through the procedural moves needed to set the stage for a wave of floor votes on the budget and other major legislation despite the specter of looming vetoes at the hand of the state's Democratic governor.

A veto by Gov. Tom Wolf would be his first, and a veto of an entire budget package would be the first in at least four decades in Pennsylvania. Wednesday is the first day of the state government's new fiscal year, and when the Wolf administration will lose some of its authority to spend money without signed budget legislation.

The flurry of action by Republicans follows a stall in negotiations with Wolf and reflects their leaders' determination to move on their agenda before the start of the new budget year.

The GOP's approximately $30 billion, no-new-taxes budget bill, along with other budget-related bills, is scheduled for a final vote in the Senate on Tuesday. Also scheduled for final floor votes Tuesday are Republican-penned legislation to end the traditional pension benefit for future-hired state government and public school employees and to privatize the state-controlled wine and liquor store system.

Democrats anticipate voting in a bloc against each of the bills and expect that Wolf will veto them all to reinvigorate negotiations with Republican leaders.

"Maybe the governor has to put everybody in check and bring everybody back to the table," said Sen. Vincent Hughes of Philadelphia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said he had no doubt his members will produce enough votes to send Wolf the budget, liquor bill and public pension changes. He urged Wolf to sign them.

"The governor is entitled to posture as much as he wants to posture," Turzai said. "It is irresponsible not to take these seriously."

Wolf is seeking a multibillion-dollar tax increase to send $800 million more to education programs, wipe out a massive projected deficit and finance property tax cuts. Key among the tax increases he wants is a $1 billion severance tax on the Marcellus Shale natural gas industry.

However, Republicans have shown no willingness to increase taxes and instead have reached for a grab-bag of payment delays and fund transfers to balance the budget. Their nearly $30.2 billion spending plan represents a year-over-year increase of about 4 percent, driven largely by higher pension obligations, the cost of health care for the poor and about $200 million more for education programs.

Wolf's administration charges that stopgaps in the Republican budget will worsen the state's considerable deficit.

On Monday, state actuaries released an estimate that the GOP's pension bill would save about $11 billion on payments over about 30 years on a pension debt currently estimated at $53 billion. The bill would not, however, provide any near-term savings to the state's budget or for school districts.

The dominant feature of the pension bill pending in the House would divert most future state government and public school employees into a 401(k)-style retirement plan.

Wolf and Democratic lawmakers oppose that idea, as well as GOP legislation to shut down state stores and sell licenses to allow private retailers and wholesalers to take over the selection and sale wine and liquor.

Republicans say it will bring in more income for the state, but even an architect of the plan says higher prices could result.

"I don't know what (private retailers are) going to mark it up or what they're going to do," said Sen. Charles McIlhinney, R-Bucks.

Meanwhile, legislation to cut property taxes by moving the cost burden to higher state taxes on income and sales, a major priority of Wolf's, has stalled in the Senate after getting out of the House with votes from both parties.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
Contact Us