Negotiators put Pennsylvania budget talks on pause
HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf and the Pennsylvania Legislature appear headed for another week of grappling over how to end a five-month budget stalemate while pressure ratchets up on them amid growing social services layoffs, threats of school shutdowns and the looming end of the calendar year.
A determined House Republican majority showed no sign of any willingness to accept a package of Senate-passed legislation as last week wound down, and a long list of disputed issues attached to the budget bills only made the lines of division clearer.
With state aid shut off to schools, social services and counties, school boards have begun to discuss staying closed after the winter holiday break and more programs are closing. Borrowing by school districts and counties is approaching $1 billion.
The Department of Education says about 600 children from low-income families have lost access to state-subsidized early childhood education programs because of shutdowns.
On Friday, the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center in Pittsburgh shuttered its state-subsidized pre-kindergarten programs, affecting an additional 100 children.
“I find it inexplicable that (lawmakers) wait until the last minute and then they say, ‘We’re working through some very complicated issues here,’” said Sue Buffton, the organization’s director of early childhood education programs.
Over the weekend, negotiators were to return to a task that has eluded them since Wolf proposed a $31.6 billion budget plan in March.
The process picked up momentum last week, particularly in the Republican-controlled Senate, which passed hundreds of pages of bipartisan spending bills along with major changes to charter school policy, the state’s two mammoth public-sector pension systems and the state-owned wine and liquor stores system.
Senate officials say their $30.8 billion spending plan would be accompanied by a $1.2 billion tax increase to meet Wolf’s demand for a record boost to public school aid while helping counties fund social services and narrowing a long-term deficit that has persisted for budget cycle after budget cycle.
The Senate, however, has not produced legislation that will detail the tax increases required to balance the spending bill, which is hundreds of millions more than what the House passed last Tuesday without a single vote from a Democrat.
Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, told reporters in his Capitol office on Friday afternoon that the House needed time to sort through the Senate’s bills. The House was expected to return to session Sunday evening.
Turzai would not say what kind of tax increase House Republicans would support.
Wolf has pointed the finger at House Republicans, a caucus that has grown more conservative as it has seen a series of recent electoral victories, leaving it with a 119-84 margin over Democrats.
The Democrat’s office issued a statement Friday that said the House GOP was “controlled by extreme right-wing members that kowtow to special interests” and explicitly blamed it for the impasse.
Turzai said his Republican members are determined to push back against taxes and spending and called Wolf “far to the left.”
Wolf “does not really ever talk about the hardworking men and women who have to pay the taxes,” he said.
A Senate-passed liquor bill to allow private sales of wine will not pass the House, said Turzai, who is among the strongest legislative advocates for selling off the liquor stores and the state’s wholesale distribution system.