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Budget risks a Wolf veto

staff and wire reports

HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf threatened Wednesday to veto a fresh piece of spending legislation that Republicans offered as an end to an eight-month budget fight but that the Democrat criticized as “irresponsible and unbalanced” without a tax increase.

The partisan standoff has left billions of dollars in limbo and the state operating on a $23.4 billion budget, nearly $6 billion less than last year. Public schools are borrowing to stay open, while Penn State has threatened to shut down agricultural extension offices across the state.

Meanwhile, the state is funding prisons and Medicaid costs without legislative authority two-thirds of the way through the state government’s fiscal year, and a fight already is shaping up over a projected deficit of approximately $2 billion in the fiscal year beginning July 1.

“Despite repeated efforts by my administration to work with Republican leaders to find compromise, including over the last couple days, Republican leaders are once again insistent on passing another irresponsible and unbalanced budget that does not fund our schools or fix the deficit,” Wolf said in a statement.

Locally: Though Wolf has already threatened to veto the spending package, Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, said he’d prefer the governor not pick up this pen.

“If he doesn’t like it, just let it go,” Grove said. “This is the fourth budget we’ve sent to him.”

If Wolf neither signs nor vetoes the legislation, it would automatically become law in 10 days.

“Do I think this spending plan is perfect?” Sen. Scott Wagner, R-Spring Garden Township, said in a news release. “No, of course not. It doesn’t address the cost drivers like pensions and health care benefits, but it provides increased education funding, restores cuts made by the governor, and ultimately, puts overdue money into our schools that so desperately need it — including our charter schools — without raising taxes.”

But Rep. Kevin Schreiber, D-York City, said the latest version of the GOP budget just doesn’t add up and includes a $300 million imbalance.

“This is why you don’t do it piecemeal. This is why you do one comprehensive budget,” he said. “This is just another unfortunate circumstance. Instead of reaching a compromise, we’re sending a bill that will be vetoed.”

Veto threat: Wolf issued the threat to veto the $6 billion spending bill between a 31-18 vote in the Republican-controlled Senate and a 128-63 vote in the GOP-controlled House. Every Republican and 14 Democrats supported the measure, which could arrive on Wolf’s desk Thursday.

Tax-averse Republicans said they were advancing the spending measure as a way to resolve the budget fight before schools close or hospitals and universities resort to mass layoffs to get by without state aid.

“As important as structural deficits are … it pales in comparison to the decision parents are going to have to make if their schools are closed,” Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said during floor arguments. “It pales in comparison to the decision that employees are going to have to make, are they going to work without pay. That’s the real life decision that’s going to happen if we do not pass this budget and the governor does not sign it. That’s the real world, that’s not the halls of this Capitol.”

Schools: Republicans

designed it to be part of a

$30 billion package, increasing spending from the state’s main bank account by about $870 million, or 3 percent. The Republican plan would deliver half of the public school aid increase,

$200 million, or 3.5 percent, that Wolf had initially sought last year.

“It’s beyond frustrating at this point, they’re getting hopes up and it’s not going anywhere,” said Steve Robinson, spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Board Association. “Budget deals are being put together and then we just watch them fall apart. It has become impossible for schools to plan in any way.

“Many schools across the state are saying by the end of April they won’t have enough money to make payroll. What happens when we get to that point, I don’t know.”

Most York County schools have said they’re fairly certain they’ll be able to make it through to the end of the school year without borrowing money as long as they tighten their belts, but Red Lion Area schools recently sent home a message to parents saying the district’s financial situation is “dire” and if a budget is not passed soon, the district could be forced into bankruptcy by the end of the fiscal year, June 30.

“We have considered the idea of borrowing money to cover expenses,” said Superintendent Scott Deisley in the letter. “When a public school district takes a loan out for operational cash shortfalls, those bonds are not transferrable from one fiscal year to another. This option is not viable since the repayment of any loan would correspond with the same timeframe in which we are at risk for running out of money.”

The board recently voted to delay payments to charter and cyber schools.

Universities: In the House, Democrats cooperated Wednesday in authorizing about $578 million for five state-subsidized universities — Penn State, Pitt, Temple, Lincoln and the University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary school. The money required a two-thirds vote of approval and had been stalled in the House, where Democrats have backed Wolf’s opposition to GOP spending plans.

The university funding represented a 5 percent increase. However, Wolf’s office said he would veto the legislation.

“We simply do not have the money for these appropriations, and unfortunately, it has become common practice for Harrisburg to refuse to pay the bills it has racked up on the taxpayer’s credit card,” Wolf’s office said.

Going into the fiscal year, Wolf had sought a multibillion-dollar tax increase to resolve a long-term deficit that has damaged Pennsylvania’s credit rating and to begin wiping out 2011’s budget-balancing funding cuts to public schools.

A bipartisan deal backed by Wolf collapsed just before Christmas after House GOP leaders pulled support. That $30.8 billion spending plan would have required a

$1 billion-plus tax increase. Republicans subsequently sent a $30.3 billion plan to Wolf, and he vetoed billions of dollars in subsidies for schools, prisons and Medicaid. With the current fiscal year nearly over, Wolf is seeking a $2.7 billion tax increase in the coming fiscal year. However, top Republican lawmakers have said they are committed to resolving the deficit without a tax increase.