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Pennsylvania GOP lawmakers press $30.1B budget package that risks governor's veto

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HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — Top Republican lawmakers said Friday they plan within days to finalize a $30.1 billion budget package that would not raise taxes, although it faces an almost-certain veto by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and a protracted partisan stalemate and shutdown of Pennsylvania state government.

Republicans gave reporters few details about the plan, which they started to unveil amid stalled budget talks with the Wolf administration just five days from the beginning of the state government's new fiscal year. The proposal would increase spending by about $1 billion, relying partly on surplus tax collections and cash from a yet-to-be produced plan to privatize the state-controlled liquor and wine store system.

The announcement was met with immediate criticism by Wolf, who is seeking a $2.6 billion spending increase financed by tax increases to wipe out a long-term projected deficit and deep cuts in education spending under his Republican predecessor. Within hours, Democratic lawmakers identified what they called more than $1.5 billion in one-time stopgaps that Republicans inserted into their plan.

The House Appropriations Committee approved the GOP budget on a 21-15 vote along party lines with virtually no discussion. It next moves to the full House for the first in a flurry of votes that could begin as early as Saturday and end Tuesday with the legislation on Wolf's desk on the last day of the fiscal year.

"Obviously at that point, the governor will have a decision to make," said House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana. "We will have met our constitutional obligation and the only person who will have the opportunity to shut down government for the people of Pennsylvania sits in the governor's office."

Republicans did not give many details on how they would finance the budget plan or fill a $1.3 billion projected deficit. Their proposal would increase spending on public schools by $100 million, one-fourth of the record increase being sought by Wolf, and it would not be accompanied by a plan to cut property taxes that Wolf is insisting on. In addition to numerous stopgaps, the Republican plan would squeeze about $300 million in savings out of the massive agency in charge of health care and services for the poor and disabled.

Republicans said they were willing to trade stopgaps for tax increases.

"We hope that the governor will understand that the people of Pennsylvania, although they elected a new governor, they did not elect a new philosophy of massive tax increases, massive spending at historic levels," Reed said.

More than $2 billion in one-time stopgaps in the current budget drew credit downgrades from three different ratings agencies last year under Wolf's predecessor, Republican Tom Corbett, leaving Pennsylvania's creditworthiness in the nation's basement.

Wolf threatened to veto the bill unless major changes were made, saying that it puts off more than $500 million in expenses, fails to restore funding previously cut from public schools and fails to make required debt service and pension payments.

"If this budget gets to me in the form that we have right now, a form that has all these games ... nothing more than the status quo, I will veto it," he said.

Wolf said he is less concerned about budget talks stretching beyond Tuesday's deadline than he is about providing money for property-tax reductions and winning authorization for a severance tax on natural-gas drilling to generate an estimated $1 billion a year. Republicans oppose higher taxes on the industry.

"I want a good budget. I'm not wedded to any time frame. I'm wedded to a budget that does an honest job addressing the issues that Pennsylvanians face," he said.

Republicans appear to have abandoned a drive to pass legislation that could immediately ease a spike in pension obligation payments under a 2010 law. But they say forthcoming legislation to privatize liquor and wine sales could provide an extra $220 million a year to the state treasury. Wolf opposes privatization.

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