Pennsylvania’s ugly budget fight gets personal and regional

Associated Press

HARRISBURG — The feel-good bipartisan spirit that Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf tried to instill last year in Pennsylvania’s Capitol is gone, stomped to bits in an increasingly ugly budget stalemate.

FILE - This Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, file photo shows the Pennsylvania Capitol building in Harrisburg. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Now, the Capitol seems gripped by a feud that is perhaps less partisan than it is regional and personal.

To a significant degree, that feud is between the huge Republican majorities that run the House and the Senate. It is also inside of those majorities, pitting southeastern Pennsylvania moderates against anti-tax conservatives who hail from much of the rest of the state.

“There’s so many factions, just so many factions,” said Sen. Don White, R-Indiana. “Everybody from the southeast. It’s geographical. It’s about commitments made. It’s a real mess and I’ve never seen anything like it in my 17 years.”

More: Pennsylvania delays $1.7B in payments amid budget stalemate

Nearly three months into the fiscal year, lawmakers are grappling with how to resolve state government’s largest cash shortfall since the recession, now a projected $2.2 billion gap in a $32 billion budget.

Gov. Tom Wolf

The finger-pointing was on stark display late Wednesday night, right after House Republican leaders defied weeks of urging by Wolf and Senate leaders to agree to a plan that relied, in part, on a $500 million-plus tax package.

An element of that package involved imposing a new tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas production, a key aim of southeastern Pennsylvania Republicans, Wolf and Democrats that Republicans from northern and western Pennsylvania’s gas fields have blocked for years, partly out of fear for how it would cut into their region’s economy.

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Instead, the House GOP muscled through a no-new-taxes plan that differs in one key way: It would tap roughly $600 million from off-budget accounts, including for public transit systems and environmental improvement projects favored by Democrats and moderate suburban Republicans. Thirteen Republicans from southeastern Pennsylvania voted with every Democrat against it.

Minutes after the vote, House GOP leaders lashed out.

Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, suggested to reporters that Wolf has been an absentee governor during budget negotiations.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, accused the Wolf administration of lying to lawmakers about surplus cash sitting in off-budget accounts and threatening lawmakers with stopping projects.

Pennsylvania State Rep. Stan Saylor reacts to Gov. Tom Wolf's 2017-18 budget address at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

House Speaker Mike Turzai — who has said he was seriously considering running for the GOP nomination to challenge Wolf’s re-election bid in next year’s election — accused Wolf of overspending the state into the deficit and intentionally inflating revenue projections last year “so that he could increase spending.”

Then Turzai, R-Allegheny, turned on Senate Republicans. They had “ceded their supermajority to the governor and to the Democrats” by allowing the tax package to pass the chamber without approval from the majority of its GOP members, he said. The House, Turzai suggested, would never allow a floor vote on legislation that was not supported by a majority of Republicans.

Senate Republicans declined to respond, but Wolf’s office did.

The administration maintained that there are no surpluses sitting in off-budget accounts, and that raiding in the accounts will cut off funding for projects. The administration also pointed out that House GOP leaders agreed to a consensus revenue estimate last year that hewed closely to a separate estimate by the Legislature’s own Independent Fiscal Office.

In any case, House GOP leaders began trying to pin blame for the deficit on Wolf in July, when frustration set in over how to fully fund the nearly $32 billion budget bill that House Republicans had backed overwhelmingly in a June 30 vote.

The Senate will return to session Monday, as Wolf delays payments to manage through a cash crunch.

How the stalemate can end is unclear.

“I have no idea where it’s going,” said Rep. John Taylor, R-Philadelphia. “I don’t think anybody else does either.”

The outcome has implications for everything from the governor’s race to the interest rate Pennsylvania pays on the billions it borrows every year to the budgets of public schools, county-run social services, hospitals and agencies serving the disabled.

Many lawmakers expect the Senate will seek significant changes to the House plan. A number of southeastern Pennsylvania Republicans say a Marcellus Shale tax will re-emerge as a necessary part of a final budget agreement.

Reed and Turzai don’t like that, Taylor said, “but I think they understand that.”