Week 6: Wolf, Scarnati underscore differences holding up budget
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania entered its sixth week without a state budget Wednesday as the Democratic governor and the top Senate Republican offered no evidence of progress in private negotiations and refused to set a deadline for settling the stalemate.
Gov. Tom Wolf and Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati assessed the situation in back-to-back interviews on Harrisburg radio station WITF's "Smart Talk" program. They told program host Scott LaMar there is no date by when the budget must be approved.
Wolf said the $30.2 billion GOP budget plan he vetoed June 30, which called for a modest increase in education spending and covered rising pension and health care costs without increasing taxes, ignored pressing needs and continues to rely on accounting gimmicks that have hurt the state's credit ratings.
Wolf, who ousted his Republican predecessor in last year's elections even as the GOP posted gains in both chambers of the Legislature, defended his plan to increase taxes by billions of dollars a year to slash local property taxes, increase education spending and erase the chronic budget deficit.
He said he has made concessions, but that Republican leaders don't seem serious about negotiating.
"I don't know how you actually have a conversation when you have people who are just not willing to talk," the governor said. "No one wants a tax increase. I think that's the difficult thing about this. But in a democracy, when we're governing ourselves, sometimes we have to make tough decisions."
Scarnati said Wolf's insistence on major tax increases is the most divisive issue in the budget talks.
Wolf's agenda "is the most aggressive tax-and-spend plan anywhere in the 50 states," the Jefferson County lawmaker said.
Scarnati challenged Wolf's claim that a $3.8 billion state tax increase he proposes to reduce school property taxes would be a wash because the state money would simply reimburse districts for the amount of their reductions. He argued that school districts would eventually increase the local taxes while state taxpayers continue to pay more.
"It's not a wash, it's a shell game," he said.
Scarnati also charged that Wolf's proposal to impose a severance tax on natural-gas drilling, as other major gas-producing states already do, would hurt job growth.
"He refuses to move out of campaign mode and into governing mode," Scarnati said. "His campaign promises can't become Pennsylvania's nightmare."
So far, most state services are largely unaffected by the stalemate and state workers continue to be paid, but billions of dollars earmarked for counties and nonprofit groups that provide social services ranging from child protective services to mental health counseling are likely to be held up until a deal is reached.
This story has been corrected to say the budget stalemate is entering its sixth week, not its fifth week.