Democrats urge Wolf to relent on veto threat
HARRISBURG — Democratic lawmakers said Monday that they are urging Gov. Tom Wolf to approve enough aid to keep schools and agricultural extension offices across Pennsylvania from closing and to back off his threat to veto Republican spending legislation he opposes.
Wolf met privately with House and Senate Democratic leaders in the Capitol on Monday amid doubt over whether the Democratic governor’s veto of a $6.6 billion package could withstand an override vote in a gridlock-weary Legislature.
Rather, Democrats say they have urged Wolf to do a “blue line,” or partial, veto.
“A lot has been happening in the last 72 hours, lots of conversation, lots of back and forth, lots of urging on our part to do maybe a blue-line of some items, keep things going,” said Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. “I think the best way to characterize it is to be more responsible on this.”
That approach, Hughes said, would hopefully keep schools and agricultural extension offices open and lay a foundation to avoid another fractious partisan fight over next year’s deficit-plagued finances.
Rep. Michael Carroll, D-Luzerne, said he wants Wolf to release enough money to keep schools open through the school year. But he also said Republicans have not yet been willing to deliver enough school aid to stop persistent local property tax increases.
“You cannot keep having a perpetual conversation about shutting schools,” Carroll said.
At an unrelated public event Monday, Wolf would not say what he ultimately would do with a Republican spending package that he has said is out of balance and does not address next year’s approximately $2 billion deficit.
He also said he is “pretty confident” that House and Senate Democrats will prevent a successful override vote should he follow through on his veto threat. Hughes said he does not know how an override vote would play out in the Senate.
Wolf has sought a multibillion-dollar tax increase to resolve a long-term deficit that has damaged Pennsylvania’s credit rating and to funnel more money to public schools still digging out from 2011’s budget-balancing funding cuts.
A bipartisan agreement last November would have achieved some of what Wolf wanted, but it collapsed after House GOP leaders pulled their support.
Since then, top Republican lawmakers have not committed to increasing taxes, and they have not explained how they plan to address the deficit. Republicans have made no concessions in exchange for Wolf backing off his veto threat, Hughes said.
Now, nine months into the fiscal year, Wolf’s rejection of spending bills from the Republican-controlled Legislature has left billions of dollars for schools in limbo and the state operating on a $23.4 billion budget, nearly $6 billion less than last year.
The state is spending money on prisons and Medicaid that is beyond its statutory authority, Penn State has threatened to shut down agricultural extension offices starting May 1 and public schools are borrowing to stay open.
A credit ratings hit to the state’s loan guarantee program for cash-strapped school districts has raised doubts, however, about whether every school will be able to borrow its way through the budget gridlock.
School districts’ threats to close have had an impact on both Democrats and Republicans, Hughes said.
“People are getting very, very tired and frustrated with where things are right now,” Hughes said.