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Wolf vetoes bills on liquor privatization, school funding changes as budget standoff continues

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HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed a Republican-backed bill to privatize the state-controlled sales of wine and liquor on Thursday as well as two budget-related bills, two days after he rejected the main budget bill.

Wolf, a Democrat in his first year, said in a news release that selling off the liquor system was not a good business decision.

"We can support and bolster consumer convenience without selling an asset and risking higher prices and less selection for consumers," Wolf said. "I am open to options for expanding the availability of wine and beer in more locations, including supermarkets."

He also vetoed a public schools bill that contained a new formula to distribute state aid to districts, and a bill that guides how money from the budget is spent. All three bills passed the Legislature without a single "yes" vote from a Democrat, as did the main budget bill he vetoed late Tuesday night.

The governor has not announced whether he plans to sign a bill that would make major changes to the two large public-sector pension plans, for teachers and state workers. A Wolf spokesman said no decision would be made before Monday.

The liquor bill would have let those who currently hold about 14,000 licenses to sell beer in the state to pay more for the right to also sell wine, liquor or both. The roughly 600 state-owned liquor stores would have closed, one at a time, once private-sector sales were up and running in the area.

House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, a longtime champion of liquor privatization and the measure's prime sponsor, likened Wolf's preference for modernization to "installing screen doors on submarines."

Senate Republican leaders issued a statement saying Wolf sided with special interests and against the priorities of consumers. They said the plan would have brought the state in line with the rest of the country and generated $220 million in revenue. Liquor privatization will be part of the coming talks to resolve the budget stalemate, they said.

The school funding bill, Wolf said, contained much that he supported, including the new funding formula, but he vetoed it because it did not do enough to restore money for public schools.

"Simply stated, it fails to meet our constitutionally required obligation of providing a thorough and efficient system of education," Wolf said.

House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin said Wolf acted "to protect his own special interests and drive for higher taxes."

"In the end his entire budget veto, and his entire budget stance is to raise taxes on Pennsylvanians and employers, nothing else," Miskin said.

The third veto was of the Fiscal Code, a key element of the bills that together make up the state's budget. Wolf criticized it for reliance on one-time revenue sources, payment delays and fund transfers.

"It is not a balanced budget, and it will lead to a $3 billion deficit and credit downgrades," he said.

Wolf and legislative leaders met briefly on Wednesday, the first day of the state's budget year, in an effort to restart budget talks after he rejected the Republican-favored spending plan. More discussions are planned for next week.

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