Still No Breakthrough in Two-Week Budget Standoff as Wolf, Republicans Meet

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf met in private Monday with leaders of the Republican majorities in the Legislature, but both sides reported no breakthrough in what has become a two-week budget standoff.

Wolf said afterward he wants to "move beyond the posturing" and toward more substantial discussions.

"Whatever we've been doing over the last however many months has not led to a very productive set of conversations," Wolf said.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, described the current level of acrimony as probably the highest he's seen, and he said it was coming from both sides. He was hard-pressed to describe any progress during the talks, which included a short private meeting at the end between him and the governor.

"Nobody got up and walked out of the room," Scarnati said. "I've been in budget meetings before where people just got up and (said) this meeting's over. That didn't happen, so look, I'm trying to see the glass is half full."

Wolf vetoed budget legislation passed by Republicans, who control both houses of the General Assembly, without a vote from Democrats. That has left the administration in the fiscal year that began July 1 with diminished authority to spend state funds, including payments to nonprofits and county agencies that help administer the state's social-services safety net.

Major sticking points have been higher spending Wolf wants for public education and his desire to balance the budget without what he describes as gimmicks. The two sides appear far apart on where that money might come from.

Scarnati said majorities of Republicans in the House and the Senate are against broad-based tax increases, such as on income or sales, and he opposes higher taxes on natural gas production.

He said the "current economics" of the gas industry argued against imposing such a tax, noting the companies already pay hundreds of millions of dollars annually in the form of impact fees, and said such taxes will not solve the budget crisis.

He did not, however, rule it out categorically.

"Drawing hard positions of what's on and off the table only draws more hard positions," Scarnati said.

Wolf said House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, was the most outspoken opponent of a Marcellus Shale extraction tax.

"The thing that stunned me the most was the speaker's continued intransigence on the severance tax," Wolf said. "He'd rather do good things for his friends in the oil and gas industry than find a way to fund schools."

Turzai said later that Wolf's support from public-sector unions was behind his vetoes of the budget and legislation to privatize liquor sales and cut benefits for the large government and teacher pension plans.

"We're going to take it all across the state, including to Democratic districts," Turzai said. "And we think that in the end, we'll have a better chance of overriding the governor with Democratic votes than he will of getting any votes for his massive tax increases."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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