Pa. Treasury will OK prison funds above law’s limit

Associated Press

HARRISBURG — The state’s treasurer said Wednesday he’ll allow payments for prison costs above the limit set in a December spending bill that failed to resolve an eight-month budget dispute between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf speaks with members of the media Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. Wolf said he is rejecting parts of a $30.3 billion state budget plan that's already a record six months overdue, but he's freeing up over $23 billion in emergency funding. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The move by Treasurer Tim Reese would normally be prohibited by the state constitution, he acknowledged, and Republican lawmakers have said it could set a far-reaching precedent that diminishes legislative power in Harrisburg.

But, Reese said, there is a sufficient legal basis to allow the payments “to prevent a risk to public safety that would occur if services necessary for the safe operation of state prisons were jeopardized as a consequence of a failure to make timely payments to Department of Corrections vendors.”

After several weeks of deliberation, Reese delivered his decision to the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee chairmen in a Wednesday afternoon letter obtained by The Associated Press.

The dilemma is the latest unprecedented situation created by a budget fight between Wolf and Republican lawmakers that goes back to July 1.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Adolph, R-Delaware, acknowledged concerns over the balance of power between the branches but said it was more important to keep the prisons open and Reese had done the right thing.

“I understand what this may look like, but public safety is our No. 1 concern, and I think the treasurer had no choice,” Adolph said. “Public safety is a top priority. The prisons have to stay open.”

In a statement, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati’s office said the Jefferson County Republican “has serious concerns about the legacy of this decision and how it may affect future legal financial decisions.”

Legal opinions by the Treasury Department, Wolf’s office and the attorney general’s office in recent days concluded that such spending to protect the welfare of prisoners is warranted, in part by the U.S. Constitution.

Treasury lawyers said there is no precedent for authorizing such spending in Pennsylvania. In years when a budget stalemate prevents the passage of spending legislation for at least part of the fiscal year, such spending has been allowed to protect public health and safety.

In December, amid the collapse of a bipartisan spending plan, lawmakers approved a GOP-penned spending bill with $1.9 billion for prisons, despite Wolf’s opposition and his warning that it did not address an impending $2 billion deficit.

In a move Wolf said was necessary to ensure a balanced budget, he vetoed half of that amount for prisons, and the state has spent up to the authorized amount — $956 million — left over by his partial veto.

Meanwhile, there is no resolution in sight to the partisan budget fight, and Wolf’s veto of some prisons money left many lawmakers scratching their heads.

Reese, in his letter, said he is sensitive to the budgetary implications of his decision and the “constitutional tensions” the situation has sown between Wolf’s office and lawmakers. As a result, he said, he intends to work with the governor’s office to make only prisons payments that are critical and necessary to safely operate prisons.