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Pennsylvania budget has unfolded in partisan Capitol as slow-motion train wreck over past year


HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — The utter breakdown in state budget negotiations in Pennsylvania didn't happen overnight, but was produced by diametrically opposed policy positions and fueled by tough rhetoric among people elected specifically to work together.

It's possible that the decision this week by Republicans who hold firm control of both chambers of the Legislature to give Gov. Tom Wolf and his Democratic allies the ability to bring up their own tax and spending bills could finally produce a breakthrough.

Or the process could just end up being another in a series of fruitless exercises that illustrate how the sides remain very far apart.

It would follow Wolf vetoes of a bare-bones GOP budget in late June as well as a Republican stopgap budget last month. Neither budget was able to attract a single Democratic vote, and if anything they have made the impasse appear even more intractable.

Even before Wolf took office, Republican leaders were giving clear signals that his first year might be difficult, insisting in December that public-sector pension cuts and selling off the state liquor system had to happen before they would consider new taxes to close the deficit and boost spending on education and human services.

Wolf's budget plan became the target immediately upon its introduction in March, particularly because of the new revenues he proposed through an increased income tax rate, a higher sales tax rate that would apply to more items, a new extraction tax on natural gas drilling and greater levies on businesses and tobacco products.

"Today's budget certainly clarifies that Gov. Wolf is fixated on taxing and spending his way out of the state's problems," Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati said at the time. "As budget negotiations progress, Senate Republicans will be a voice for reason."

In early June, House Republicans combined all of Wolf's taxes into a single amendment, a bill that was defeated unanimously after Democrats declared it a legislative gimmick that didn't accurately reflect the governor's overall proposal.

Negotiators have tried staff-level meetings, meetings with no staff, large group meetings, small group meetings, meetings in the Capitol, meetings in Wolf's offices and meetings in Republican offices.

Republicans passed liquor privatization without Democratic votes, and Wolf vetoed it. The same thing happened to a GOP bill to cut public-sector pensions.

"With the veto of liquor privatization, Gov. Wolf is maintaining the status quo and protecting his special interest friends," Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, said in early July. "Today is a sad day for those of us who fight for change in Harrisburg every day."

Republicans gave up on trying to reach a budget deal with Wolf in June and eventually passed a stripped-down spending plan that did not raise taxes and included a modest increase in education spending.

Not a single Democrat voted for it, and the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Joe Markosek, described it as being "built on mystery math and one-time gimmicks that would only exacerbate the actual budget deficit."

Republican leaders shot back with a July 6 letter to Wolf that accused the governor of holding "those who would receive these funds captive during this unnecessary budget standoff."

As weeks without a budget turned into months, Republicans decided to push through a stopgap plan to get money to schools, government agencies and programs while talks on a complete budget deal continued.

Again it was on party lines, again Wolf vetoed it.

"I understand we have divided government," Wolf said. "What I don't understand is people who don't want to govern at all."

A few days later the Republican leaders announced they would give the governor a chance to demonstrate he has the votes for tax increases through a floor vote next week, and Democrats have been scrambling to see whether they can find votes across the aisle for passage.

Republicans are confident that won't happen, and no one can know what comes next if they're right.

Mark Scolforo covers state government for The Associated Press in Harrisburg. Reach him at mscolforo@ap.org, or follow on Twitter: @houseofbuddy.

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