Pressure off, Pa.’s budget fight could be on ice
HARRISBURG — For the first time since July, billions in electronic money transfers began rocketing out of the Pennsylvania Treasury to school districts, county governments and state vendors. With it seemed to go something else: urgency in the Capitol to settle a bipartisan budget fight that produced a record-long impasse.
A rush of action before Christmas over pressing concerns about schools and social services agencies staying open in January has been replaced by a new, bitter round of partisan finger-pointing and a completely new timeline.
That timeline is anyone’s guess. Some suspect it could stretch until after the April 26 primary election.
“Certainly we’re in uncharted territory,” said Rep. Brian Ellis, R-Butler.
On Dec. 29, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf carved up a $30.3 billion budget package crafted by the House Republican majority leaders. It arrived on his desk after it became clear that a wider bipartisan budget deal supported by Wolf could not overcome setbacks before Christmas, and the Senate’s Republican majority sent it as an alternative to save suffering schools, counties and social services agencies.
Wolf authorized $23.4 billion of it, calling it emergency funding, although he blasted it as well short of his standards to adequately aid public schools and social services and deal with a long-term deficit.
He vetoed billions had been intended for public schools, prisons and health care for the poor. That line-item veto is expected to renew pressure on lawmakers to give Wolf a budget package he’ll sign, although it remains to be seen how quickly that pressure ramps up.
For now, Wolf’s office said it will not negotiate. Rather, he is insisting the Legislature pass the $30.8 billion spending plan he had agreed to with House and Senate leaders and that came close to the finish line in December.
“The time for negotiations is over,” Wolf’s press secretary Jeff Sheridan said. “It’s time to pass that budget.”
It would have delivered several things Wolf had sought: a record boost in aid to public schools, a big bite out of the state’s deficit and satisfaction of the counties’ request for more social services aid. It also would have required a tax increase of more than $1 billion.
Primary election season is now imminent for 228 of the Legislature’s 253 seats.
The deadline to file petitions to get on the ballot is Feb. 16, an important date for sitting lawmakers who are thinking about voting for a tax increase, and the potential that a tax increase fresh in the minds of voters would doom them to a successful challenge from the right.
With the immediate pressure off schools to borrow more or close, some in the Capitol now wonder if passage of a bipartisan budget deal will inevitably slide until the next pressure point.
Others wonder whether the brutal politics of the primary season will doom it.
“Now with all the passage of time, I think it’s going to make it tough to get those Republican votes and the fact that those identified as ‘yes’ votes are going to be under pressure from Republicans not to vote ‘yes’ again,” said Rep. Nick Kotik, D-Allegheny.
Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said he is also done negotiating and that the bipartisan budget package is dead without passage of legislation the Senate GOP had sought to restructure the pension benefits for state government and public school employees. The bill was defeated in the House.
“Could it go on into April or May? Look, I think the divide has gone so deep over raising taxes that, for us, for Republicans raising broad-based taxes and getting absolutely nothing is the equivalent to insanity,” Scarnati said.
House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, said he is willing to work with anyone to wrap up a budget package and insists it could happen in the next couple weeks.
Lawmakers circulating petitions, Dermody said, would be better off being able to tell voters that they had completed a budget package. In any case, it won’t be long before schools feel the pinch again, Dermody said.
Wolf is expected to deliver a budget proposal Feb. 9 for the fiscal year that starts next July 1, and many rank-and-file lawmakers aren’t sure how a budget package for this year will be finalized, or when.
“The deeper we get, the less I think anyone knows how this is going to play out,” said Rep. Nick Miccarelli, R-Delaware. “I fear we’re headed toward long-term gridlock like what you see in DC.”
Marc Levy covers politics and government for The Associated Press in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/timelywriter. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/author/marc-levy.