Talks at a stalemate over Pennsylvania’s unbalanced budget
HARRISBURG — A flurry of deadline-driven budget work quieted Tuesday in the Pennsylvania Capitol as the state’s divided government trudged forward in a stalemate over a budget that is badly out of balance and legally questionable.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf remained out of sight Tuesday, and top lawmakers reported no new efforts to secure agreement on a $2 billion-plus revenue plan that negotiators say is necessary to stitch together the state government’s threadbare finances.
Wolf let a nearly $32 billion bill become law without his signature at midnight Monday — his second straight year doing so — after unsuccessfully pressing the Republican-controlled Legislature to approve a tax package he deemed to be big enough to avoid a downgrade to Pennsylvania’s bruised credit rating.
House Republican leaders — at odds with Wolf, Democratic lawmakers and Senate Republican leaders over how to close the deficit — sent rank-and-file members home to their districts after five session days waiting for a deadline budget deal that never arrived.
Talks collapsed Monday, when negotiators had said the sides were close, and House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, could not predict when or how talks would resume on a revenue plan.
“It’s got to get done, it will get done,” Reed told reporters Tuesday evening. “You know sometimes maybe a couple hours away for everybody is a good thing. Everybody can regroup and we can put it back together.”
House Republican leaders were also the only ones to protest Wolf’s move to let the budget bill become law. Reed said Wolf should have used his line-item veto power to strike enough spending from the budget bill to ensure it balanced with the state’s existing tax collections.
The governor’s office would only say Tuesday evening that Wolf would continue working toward an agreement to balance the budget.
Besides a tax increase of some level, the revenue package that had been under construction in closed-door negotiations was to rely primarily on borrowing and involve another big expansion of casino gambling in the nation’s No. 2 commercial casino state.
Democrats were stunned at the decision by House GOP leaders to send members home, a move they said would drain pressure on negotiators to end the 11-day-old stalemate.
“It’s unconscionable to me that they would walk away from their obligation to govern and work to resolve the revenue part of the conversation,” said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny. “You’ve got three of the four parties and the governor who are willing and wanting to work toward a conclusion now, today, tomorrow, and they send the members home. I just don’t get it.”
The Senate expected to remain in session beyond Tuesday.
Last year, the Legislature sent an on-time, bipartisan spending bill to Wolf, but with no plan to pay for parts of it.
Wolf let the plan become law without his signature when the 10-day signing period expired and lawmakers delivered a $1.3 billion funding package three days later.
In recent days, Wolf had rejected Republican plans that leaned more heavily on one-time cash infusions, and pressed Republicans to support a larger package of tax increases, top lawmakers say.
Wolf had sought $700 million to $800 million in reliable, annual revenue, such as tax increases. House Republicans had been unwilling to offer a tax package even half that size, negotiators said.
Tax increases under discussion included basic cable service, movie tickets, bank profits, telephone service and electric service.
Wolf also had pushed Republicans to agree to a production tax on natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, his third straight year of doing so. Pennsylvania, the nation’s No. 2 natural gas state, is the only large natural gas-producing state that does not tax the product. Top Republican lawmakers rejected that, despite its support from most Democrats and moderate Republicans.