As weekend session nears, Pa. lawmakers test budget options
HARRISBURG, Pa. — Republican legislative leaders to test rank-and-file members in earnest Friday to determine what kind of package of tax increases can get enough support to break Pennsylvania's five-monthbudget stalemate.
The huge House and Senate Republican majorities each met separately for hours behind closed doors, engaging in their most substantive tax discussions yet, lawmakers said.
However, the discussions were wide open, lawmakers said, and left little settled in a search for more than $600 million to meet Gov. Tom Wolf's demand for a record increase in aid to public schools and extra cash to help narrow a long-term budget deficit.
More Republicans say they now support the kind of tax increase called for in GOP leaders' negotiated deal with Wolf. But the lack of consensus on how to do it left some rank-and-file Republicans lawmakers defying predictions by GOP leadership that a budget deal could be done by Wednesday.
Instead, several more weeks could be necessary to get budget legislation to Wolf's desk, some Republicans said.
"We're still at the beginning of the journey," said Rep. John Taylor, R-Philadelphia. "But at least, to use a transportation analogy, we're on the track."
Some Republican lawmakers reported rank-and-file pushback against proposals to remove exemptions under the state sales tax, the most recent idea being tested by Republican legislative leaders.
By the end of Friday, Senate Republican leadership was canvassing rank-and-file members over whether they would prefer an increase in the sales or income tax, ideas that top Republican lawmakers had previously dismissed.
"There is a lot of turmoil and not too many people are real happy with leadership right now," said Sen. Don White, R-Indiana.
In the House, Republicans said the closed-door discussion included raising the personal income tax and imposing a tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas production, which Wolf had sought as a top priority before abandoning it in the face of Republican opposition. But even if the Senate Republicans developed a consensus by Saturday, it was not clear that it could gain approval from the House GOP, Republican lawmakers said.
With Republican leaders insisting that elements of the deal are close to agreement, the House and Senate were each scheduled to return to session Saturday for more closed-door discussions.
Wolf and a small circle of lawmakers negotiating with him have largely maintained silence about their discussions, worried that giving details about an unfinished deal would doom it. Meanwhile, the long impasse has sown growing frustration among rank-and-file lawmakers.
The outlines of a prior deal between Wolf and top Republicans collapsed less than two weeks ago, and lawmakers privately wonder whether the latest proposal will meet the same fate.
Numerous differences persist, and a wide range of legislation attached to the budget bill is complicated.
For starters, no agreement has been made public on how to distribute the new money for public schools — $350 million, a 6 percent increase — to Pennsylvania's 500 school districts.
House and Senate Republicans are battling over legislation to make changes to the state-controlled system of wine and liquor sales. And a plan to scale back public pension benefits is being met by grumbling among Republican senators that it is too watered down after a negotiation with Wolf.
It is also not clear that the House GOP will support the pension legislation, while labor unions are threatening to sue if it passes because of cuts in benefits for current employees.