State budget deal still mired in uncertainty

Associated Press

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf isn't saying whether he'll sign a budget bill sent to him by the Senate in a last-ditch bid to break a 6-month stalemate before Christmas and get money flowing to schools and social service agencies.

In this AP file photo, members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives debate the budget, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The Republican-controlled Senate on Wednesday passed the main appropriations bill in a $30.3 billion package.

It passed on a near party-line vote, 33-17. The House passed it two weeks ago, after the House GOP majority turned against a broader budget agreement backed by Wolf and Senate leaders.

That deal called for $30.8 billion in spending, a 6 percent increase, and $1 billion-plus tax increase Wolf wanted to deliver a record boost in public school aid and to close a deficit.

Senate Republicans pulled support for the tax increase since pension legislation stalled in the House.

Numerous questions remain, including the fate of legislation to authorize hundreds of millions of dollars for universities and colleges.

Pennsylvania is one of just two states — along with Illinois — still fighting over a budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. It has tied its modern-day record — Wednesday, Dec. 23 — for a budget impasse, set in 2003 by another first-year Democratic governor, Ed Rendell, and a Republican-controlled Legislature.

The lack of support for pension legislation and the lack of written tax legislation prompted House Republican leaders to send members home, with no set time to return. The House would not vote on the spending legislation without adequate tax legislation to pay for it, said House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana.

Rep. Kevin Schreiber, D-York City, said he was surprised the session was abruptly ended and believes it happened because the House GOP feared the compromise budget would pass.

“I think it was another delay … to not accept that the votes are there,” Schreiber said. “It’s very disturbing. The votes are there. That was demonstrated (Tuesday).”

The House moved the budget one step from Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk Tuesday when it voted 100-97 to put it up for a final vote.

Numerous House Democrats attempted to object to the session ending before the vote, but Speaker Mike Turzai denied them the chance, Schreiber said.

“That’s kind of the equivalent of taking your marbles and going home,” he said.

"I feel like I'm in an alternative universe," said Rep. Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin. "It's appropriate that 'Star Wars' debuted this week because this is like a science-fiction movie. This is unbelievable that this is Dec. 23."

In a statement, Wolf blasted the House and Senate Republican majorities, saying they were intent on maintaining the status quo and going on vacation “instead of continuing the hard work to move Pennsylvania forward.”

He also accused Senate Republicans of caving to tea party-aligned House Republican leaders and denying critical dollars for schools.

“Change is difficult, and clearly more so given this legislature, but we must continue our fight for historic education funding that will begin to restore the cuts from five years ago, and a budget that is balanced, paid for, and fixes our deficit,” Wolf said in the statement.

Senate Republicans argued that they had been the responsible ones in the Capitol by approving a spending bill to speed money to suffering school districts and social services agencies.

“This is the only way to get a budget to the governor before Christmas, so that we can start driving out money to our schools, to our social services, which are hurting,” Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said during brief floor arguments.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said he would urge Wolf to veto the plan.

With billions in state aid held up, cash-strapped school districts are borrowing to stay open, social service agencies are laying off workers and state-subsidized prekindergarten programs are closing to hundreds of children in low-income families. Domestic violence shelters are filled to capacity, and several school districts have raised the idea of staying closed after the winter break to avoid having to borrow more money.

The spending bill passed the Republican-controlled Senate two weeks ago. Wolf supports it as part of a wider budget package that has been hung up by House GOP opposition since the outlines of a bipartisan deal were announced in early November.

On Tuesday, Democrats and moderate Republicans narrowly sent the $30.8 billion spending bill over key procedural hurdles in the House. But it remained in the House on Wednesday, awaiting the companion tax legislation, which had not been made public by the afternoon.

Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, said the rank-and-file still haven’t seen a tax plan addressing how the spending package would be funded.

It’s unconstitutional for a governor to sign a spending plan without a tax plan, he said.

The pension bill remained stalled in the House, amid lobbying by anti-tax groups to vote against it as a proxy defeat of the wider spending and tax plan. Along with opposition from every House Democrat and some moderate Republicans, it went down Saturday, 149-52.

The legislation would create a mandatory 401(k)-style benefit for state government and public school employees hired in the future. It would keep but cut in half the traditional pension benefit for future employees and put limits on future pension benefits of current employees. Labor unions oppose it and have threatened to challenge it in court over the changes to current employee benefits.

Dispatch reporter Greg Gross contributed to this report.