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Wolf, allies test House resolve against tax increase

MARC LEVY
Associated Press

HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration and its allies were working Thursday to sway enough rank-and-file House Republicans behind a $1 billion-plus tax increase to override renewed opposition from House GOP leaders and end the 5½-month budget stalemate.

Gov. Tom Wolf.

Wolf’s administration and House Democrats could not give details Thursday morning about any outreach to House Republicans. The activity comes a day after leaders of the huge House Republican majority moved decisively to pin responsibility on Wolf to scrape up support in the chamber, one week shy of the modern-day Pennsylvania record for a budget standoff.

“We’re talking to members of both caucuses,” said House Democratic spokesman Bill Patton. “Our own and House Republicans, and we are making progress.”

House Speaker Mike Turzai set a deadline of 12:30 p.m. Thursday for the Democratic governor to show he could assemble enough votes to move the tax package through the chamber. However, Wolf and House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, downplayed Turzai’s 24-hour ultimatum, while rank-and-file House Republicans said it would be a challenge to persuade 20 or 30 of them to support the tax increase.

Wolf has demanded a tax increase to help wipe out deep public school funding cuts in 2011 while meeting counties’ requests for an increase in social services aid and narrowing a long-term budget deficit.

The tax plan remained under wraps, after continuing to evolve overnight, as House Democrats pressed for an increase on the personal income tax, rather than a sales tax increase preferred by some Republicans.

Pressure is mounting. Cash-strapped school districts are getting slapped with potentially crippling credit downgrades, social service agencies are laying off workers and state-subsidized prekindergarten programs are closing to hundreds of children of low-income families.

Lawmakers thinking about voting for the tax increase are also thinking about the Feb. 16 filing deadline to get on the primary ballot, and the potential that a tax increase fresh in the minds of voters would doom them to a successful challenge from the right.

“I think it makes it more difficult for both sides of the aisle to put that vote up,” said Rep. Eugene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks.

There are 119 Republicans in the House, the highest number since the Pennsylvania Constitution was amended in 1967 to set the number of House seats at 203.

Republicans from moderate southeastern Pennsylvania will be the likeliest to support a tax increase, since the vast majority of Republicans from northern, central and western Pennsylvania are against it. Several southeastern House Republicans said they had not been contacted by House Democrats or the administration in the past day, and some said they preferred to see a tax increase on the Marcellus Shale natural gas industry.

“What I’m telling everyone is, ‘I can’t vote for sales or income unless those guys share the pain,’” said Rep. Kate Harper, R-Montgomery.

Wolf last month dropped his pursuit of a natural gas production tax in the face of opposition from Republicans, but said he would seek it again next year.

On Thursday, the governor’s office continued its attack on House Republican leaders, saying they were backing away for the second time in a month from the outlines of the spending and tax package that they themselves had helped negotiate.

“They have yet to deliver on anything,” Wolf administration press secretary Jeff Sheridan said Thursday. “Everyone else is delivering. It isn’t anybody else’s responsibility to do the House Republicans’ job.”

Wolf, the Republican-controlled Senate and House Democrats have continued to back a $30.8 billion spending plan — a 6 percent spending increase — and an accompanying $1 billion-plus tax plan that has not been written into legislation.

But the huge House Republican majority revolted in early December against the size of a tax and spending plan their leaders had backed the previous month.

Senate leaders say they believe it can pass the Senate, and Senate Republican majority leaders signed on in exchange for Wolf’s support for legislation they’ve long sought to overhaul public pension benefits.