HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — A leading proponent of liquor privatization in the Pennsylvania Legislature said Monday that selling off the state stores must happen for any type of tax to be increased, with budget talks deadlocked nearly a month into the state's new fiscal year.
Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, described increasing sales and income taxes, or imposing a Marcellus Shale extraction tax, as "a huge public policy mistake." Votes for any other levies, he said, would have to be tied to getting the state out of the retail and wholesale liquor business.
A privatization scheme could help generate revenues to make up the state's billion-dollar-plus deficit.
"Here's $220 million sitting in front of you, and all it entails is moving us into the 21st century," he said.
Turzai also indicated lawmakers may resolve the budget standoff by overriding Gov. Tom Wolf. Wolf, a Democrat, vetoed the budget legislation, a liquor privatization plan and public pension cuts after they passed without a single vote from his party.
Turzai said at a Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon that recent budget talks have amounted to "constructive dialogue" but negotiations have been around the edges rather than at the heart of their disputes.
"We have to look at overriding if we're not going to have a substantive discussion," Turzai said.
He said there was not a turntable for a potential override vote, which would require two-thirds support in both chambers.
Both are now solidly under Republican control but well under that level. In the 203-seat House, which has 120 Republicans, that would mean 136 votes if there are no vacancies. In the 50-person Senate, which now has 30 Republicans, it would require 34 votes at full capacity.
Wolf wants billions to close a budget deficit and spend more on education and human services. The Republican-passed budget did not include a tax increase.
Wolf's press secretary issued a statement that said Turzai's opposition to a shale tax helps energy companies instead of schools.
"This type of irresponsible budgeting has led to struggling schools, soaring property taxes, multiple credit downgrades and a multi-billion dollar deficit," said Wolf press secretary Jeff Sheridan. "Pennsylvania has tried it the speaker's way and now it's time to put the middle class first and rebuild Pennsylvania."
Turzai said the governor's revenue proposals lack support, both in the General Assembly and among the wider public, and he was critical of negative ads and mail that has targeted Republicans, calling the campaign "both tawdry and unproductive."
Asked why he voted for the 2013 transportation bill, which imposed billions in new government fees and taxes annually from Pennsylvania motorists, Turzai said that as a legislative leader he "got dragged along on that."
The amount it raised was too high, Turzai said, but it has helped improve the state's roads and generated road construction work.