Wolf still hopes for budget deal as next proposal nears
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said Thursday he is hoping for a budget deal for the state fiscal year that is already halfway over before it’s time for him to deliver a budget plan for the next fiscal year.
Wolf is scheduled to deliver his next budget proposal Feb. 9, but could not say how he will handle it.
“I’ll have to decide when I get there and based on what’s in place,” Wolf said. “I’m still holding out hope that the compromise budget of 2015-16 gets into place.”
But even some of Wolf’s allies in the Republican-controlled Legislature say they believe the political will to increase taxes has dissipated with the approach of the primary campaign season, and GOP leaders have not budged from insisting on their priorities before approving a tax increase.
Wolf said he is not ready to buy the idea that sealing a budget deal is politically impossible before the April 26 primary election. Rather, it would be better politically for lawmakers to tell voters they had finalized a budget package, Wolf said.
“I’m not sure they’re going to have a good story to tell” if they face voters in the midst of a budget stalemate, he said.
Wolf had sought a tax increase to narrow funding disparities between Pennsylvania’s wealthier and poorer school districts and to try to erase a long-term deficit. But the House GOP’s budget package was $500 million short of what Wolf had sought, primarily dollars for education and social services, and lawmakers report no progress toward reviving a bipartisan budget deal that collapsed just before Christmas.
To prevent schools from closing and social service agencies from laying off more employees, Senate GOP leaders sent Wolf the main appropriations bill in the House GOP’s $30.3 billion budget package, despite Wolf’s opposition. It is now in tatters, with billions held up by a partial veto or Democratic opposition in the Legislature.
House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, said Wolf and lawmakers could try, for now, to pass a balanced budget simply to get through the fiscal year that ends June 30. Then they could use the ensuing months to resolve differences over a litany of largely Republican policy pursuits that were attached to the budget package, Reed said.
To keep pressure on lawmakers and underscore the seriousness of the deficit, Wolf vetoed more than $6 billion, largely for public schools, hospitals, state prisons and medical care for the poor.
The vetoed dollars will have little effect on prison operations or medical care for the poor, administration officials said, since that money is paid out anyway during budget stalemates to protect public health and safety.
Wolf’s veto of $3.1 billion in funding for public school operations and instruction — about half of what Wolf had sought for the full school year — could soon have consequences.
Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said Thursday that his agency has identified four school districts so far that are in difficult financial straits, and that number will multiply as the weeks go on. Rivera said he could not guarantee that every school district will be able to stay open, should the stalemate drag on.
The state’s poorest school districts will suffer the most, he said.
“They’re the first to be affected by the situation we’re in now,” Rivera said. “The poorest districts will suffer first and the most.”