Pa. budget battle moves forward
HARRISBURG, Pa. — The Pennsylvania Senate sprinted through hundreds of pages of just-unveiled budget legislation Thursday, handing it back to the House Republican majority and all but ensuring that a five-month stalemate that is crippling social services agencies would plow into next week.
The House adjourned until Saturday, when Majority Leader Dave Reed said Republicans there should have a better idea of what elements of the package of budget-related legislation they can support and what elements they cannot.
The Republican-controlled Senate adjourned Thursday night after a marathon week of passing major bills that authorize $30.8 billion in spending, overhaul public pension benefits and smash state control over the sale of wine. The last bill it passed — a 100-page education policy and school spending bill — came up for a vote within moments of it becoming public.
The Senate's legislation has the support of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, putting pressure on the House GOP to respond as social service agency layoffs mount and borrowing by counties and school districts approaches $1 billion.
A revolt over the weekend by the House Republican majority set off the second collapse of a budget deal in the past month. A resolution was in limbo as thousands of the state's political and business elite flocked to New York to attend the weekend's Pennsylvania Society festivities.
Reed, R-Indiana, left a Thursday afternoon meeting with Senate GOP leaders promising no agreement on the more than a half-dozen bills that are central to the budget package.
One key issue is House Republicans' resistance to the price of the Senate's $30.8 billion spending plan, a 6 percent increase, and the $1.2 billion tax increase that senators said would accompany it. Reed said House Republicans were seeking concessions on both fronts.
"Obviously, it's a puzzle," said Reed. "Every time you put one piece in, another piece has to fit in as well, but that is certainly something that is one of our preferences."
Earlier Thursday, Senate GOP leaders emerged from what they called a positive meeting with Reed.
"I think the tenor is good," said President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson. "I think the sincerity is absolutely there."
Wolf has said little publicly about the continuing impasse, besides insisting that he remains committed to a deal he struck last month with House and Senate leaders.
To meet Wolf's demands, the Senate package delivers a record boost to public school aid — $350 million, or 6 percent — while meeting county requests for more social services aid and narrowing a long-term budgetdeficit.
As a trade-off, Wolf agreed to sign legislation long sought by Senate Republicans to scale back public pension benefits and by House Republicans to weaken state control over the sale of wine and liquor.
House Republicans responded with a $30.3 billion budget plan and a companion proposal to raise $600 million from a $1 per-pack tax increase on cigarettes and an expansion of casino gambling to Internet sites and off-track betting parlors. It included less aid for public schools — a $150 million increase — and social services than the Senate plan.
House Republicans also have complained about what they believed would be the Senate's watered-down wine and liquor legislation and pension legislation that Reed said would artificially lower state and school pension obligation payments next year.
The education and schools bill that passed the Senate on Thursday night would impose more ethics and open records requirements on charter schools, permit new avenues for them to open, particularly in Philadelphia, and distribute about $6 billion to school districts under a one-year compromise formula.
A formula approved in June by a commission of lawmakers to distribute state aid to schools would take effect next year, under the bill. It also would impose limits on school district reserves, postpone the use of tests as a public school graduation requirement until the 2018-19 school year and authorize the borrowing of billions of dollars to pay down loans for school construction projects.
Remaining under wraps was the Senate's $1.2 billion tax plan. Neither Wolf nor senators have identified which taxes would be increased, and senators say they will not reveal those details until a firm agreement is reached with Wolf and the House.
"I don't think a tax package moves unless everyone agrees to it," said Philadelphia Sen. Vince Hughes, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. "Everything remains pretty fluid in this process."