Pennsylvania House sends short-term spending plan to veto


Associated Press

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — After more than two hours of angry debate Thursday, the state House of Representatives passed a short-term spending plan that Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has vowed to veto without broader agreement on a plan to end a nearly three-month budget stalemate.

"Governor Wolf has a decision to make –— he's either going to get money flowing to the people that need it, or he's going to hold them hostage because he thinks it gives him a political advantage," Sen. Scott Wagner, R-Spring Garden Township, said in a news release. "Once again, the legislature has done its job in an attempt to provide funding for our social service agencies, school districts, and other recipients that desperately need it. There is only one person that can keep that money from being released, and that is Governor Wolf."

The 117-83 House vote on the Republican majority's $11 billion spending plan was along party lines as Democrats stood by Wolf.

Pennsylvania is just one of two states — along with Illinois — whose deep partisan divide in state government has stymied the passage of a budget since the fiscal year began July 1. Intermittent closed-door negotiations held since then have produced little, if any, progress.

The bill is intended to cover four months of funding, retroactive to the start of the fiscal year through Oct. 31, and would release $24 billion in federal funds.

During the debate, both sides sought to shift blame to the other for the stalemate and the resulting damage from billions of dollars in aid for schools and social services that has been held up.

Republicans continued to drum out their opposition to a multibillion-dollar tax increase being sought by Wolf, which they charged that Democrats don't even support. They insisted the short-term spending package was necessary to stop layoffs, service shutdowns and closures, and they urged Democrats to release schoolchildren and the vulnerable as their "hostages."

Rep. Tom Murt, R-Montgomery, told colleagues during floor arguments that the short-term plan might not be perfect, but it was necessary.

"The funding plan before us is not a gimmick, a ploy or a public relations stunt," Murt said. "It's a responsible thing to do at a time when real people are suffering."

Said Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Adolph, R-Delaware: "Without it, you're going to see one agency at a time, one school district at a time, close its doors."

Democrats excoriated Republicans for cutting funding for schools and social services under Wolf's Republican predecessor and blamed them for perpetuating a long-term deficit that's damaged Pennsylvania's credit rating. They then warned Republicans that they will have to eventually support a tax increase to undo the damage they have inflicted.

"The 800-pound gorilla sitting at the table is going to be some very, very difficult revenue-enhancing votes that will have to be done along with this budget, and that's what we keep avoiding here," said Allegheny County Rep. Joe Markosek, the Appropriations Committee's ranking Democrat.

Rep. Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, said the short-term bill was simply a "bailout" that would temporarily relieve pressure on Republicans to compromise.

Wolf, a first-term governor, and the Legislature's huge Republican majorities have deep divides over handling fiscal policy, education funding, public pension debt and the state-controlled wine and liquor store system.

To cope with a loss of aid, school districts and counties are spending down reserves or taking out loans, while nonprofit social services agencies and their contractors are laying off employees or borrowing money.

Meanwhile, waiting lists are growing for the elderly seeking day-to-day help in their homes. In many counties, there are no rental subsidies for domestic violence victims or the nearly homeless to help get a place to stay.