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House GOP launches new round in Pennsylvania budget battle

MARK SCOLFORO and MARC LEVY
Associated Press

HARRISBURG — Widening a Republican rift in the Pennsylvania Legislature, House Republicans unilaterally attacked the state government’s 5-month-old budget stalemate with a spending plan of their own Tuesday, rejecting a bipartisan Senate vote a day earlier on a rival approach endorsed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

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The Republican-controlled House voted 115-86 for a $30.3 billion general appropriations bill, with four Republicans joining every Democrat in voting “no.”

The bill’s passage represented the second time in the past month that a proposed budget deal between Wolf and the Legislature’s Republican majorities has collapsed.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said the Senate would re-send the $30.8 billion budget bill it passed Monday, a spending plan that Wolf has endorsed, but that House Republicans protest as being too expensive.

A key hang-up for the Senate’s budget bill is the $1.2 billion full-year tax increase that Senate officials say could accompany it as part of the Senate’s deal with Wolf. Senate leaders have not outlined a plan to raise the money.

House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, countered that the Senate would need a two-year, $3 billion tax increase — $2.2 billion in a full year — to pay for its spending plans, and he questioned its political viability in the House.

“I do not see any votes in the House for something like a $3 billion tax increase,” Turzai said.

To support its spending plan, the House GOP was preparing a two-year, nearly $1 billion revenue package. The money would come from a $1 per-pack tax increase on cigarettes, new taxes on smokeless tobacco products and electronic cigarettes, and fees and taxes from legalizing Internet-based casino gambling sites and authorizing slot machines at off-track betting parlors.

Corman contends the Senate will not support such a large gambling expansion.

Meanwhile, Wolf has insisted on a tax increase big enough to deliver a record boost in aid to public schools and narrow a long-term budget deficit that has damaged Pennsylvania’s credit rating.

As a trade-off, he has agreed to sign legislation long-sought by Senate Republicans to scale back public pension benefits and by House Republicans to allow private businesses to sell wine outside the state-controlled system.

House and Senate Democratic leaders continue to back Wolf.

The Senate bill delivered $350 million in new aid for public schools, a 6 percent increase; the House Republican bill delivered $150 million. The bill also would deliver less aid than the Senate bill to special education, higher education and human services.

But House proposal would not harm working people or the state’s economy, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Adolph, R-Delaware, told colleagues during floor debate.

“This budget has a revenue plan that is achievable,” Adolph said. “It makes huge investments in areas that all of us care deeply about.”

Democrats said it was very similar to a Republican budget bill that was vetoed by Wolf on June 30 because it did not do enough to address the deficit or reverse GOP-engineered cuts to education aid and human services funding going back to 2011.

To get by without state aid, school districts, counties and social services organizations have laid off employees, cut services or let bills pile up. Collectively, they have taken out hundreds of millions of dollars in loans, while counties are starting to withhold tax collections from the state.

Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks County, said the House spending bill sets the stage for a compromise between the two chambers.

“Let’s get this budget done,” he told colleagues. “Let’s take those other issues off the table, pensions and liquor, and let’s concentrate on getting this budget done and getting out of town and getting the money out to our school districts and getting the money to our counties.”

As part of its proposed budget deal with Wolf, the Senate on Monday also approved legislation overhauling and scaling back benefits in the state’s two huge public-sector pension systems, in a bid to save money and reduce the state’s risk from stock market downturns.

Senate leaders said they also plan to vote this week on changes to Pennsylvania’s system of state-owned wine and liquor stores. House Republicans have said they would not consider either the Senate’s pension or liquor stores bills.

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Associated Press writer Peter Jackson contributed to this report.