York lawmakers taken aback by Wolf address

Greg Gross

York County Republican lawmakers said they were shocked at the tone of Gov. Tom Wolf's budget address, which was terse at times, to a joint session of the House and Senate on Tuesday.

Wolf, a Democrat from Mount Wolf, took lawmakers, namely the House GOP, to task for not voting on a compromise to the 2015-16 fiscal year budget that would have ended the ongoing impasse.

"They walked away from the table and went home for the holidays without holding that final vote. They still have not held that final vote. And because of that, we still don’t have a budget," Wolf said. "But if you won’t face up to the reality of the situation we’re in, if you ignore that time bomb ticking, if you won’t take seriously your responsibility to the people of Pennsylvania, then find another job."

When the House failed to vote, the Senate sent Wolf another budget, which was nearly identical to the one he vetoed in June. He line-item vetoed the new bill.

Wolf unveils 2016-17 budget plan

Reaction: Lawmakers on one side of aisle cheered Wolf's remarks while some on the other side jeered. One longtime staffer afterward said he never heard such a stern speech from a governor to lawmakers.

"The chastising; It doesn't help to build bridges to the compromise we need," said Rep. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township.

Sen. Pat Vance, R-York and Cumberland Counties, said Wolf's rhetoric will likely only drive the wedge between Democrats and Republicans even deeper.

"I was very surprised by the tone," she said.

State Sen. Pat Vance, R-Cumberland County

Wolf barely mentioned his $33.3 billion budget proposal during his budget address, but rang alarm bells over the $2 billion structural deficit.

Under normal circumstances, Wolf said, he'd lay out his budget plan for fiscal year 2016-17, but "not under these circumstances."

"This deficit isn’t just a cloud hanging over Pennsylvania’s long-term future. It is a time bomb, ticking away, right now, even as I speak," he said later in his speech. "If it explodes, if the people in this chamber allow it to explode,  then Pennsylvania will experience a fiscal catastrophe the likes of which we have never seen."

Lacking details: Rep. Kate Klunk, R-Hanover, said she was disappointed Wolf didn't go into details about his budget.

"It was scant on actual budget details," she said. "It was very campaign-like."

Wolf is proposing increases in spending and revenue through tax increases, something he will have to work with Republicans in the House and Senate to get.

But the GOP-controlled House has stood generally arm-in-arm against any tax hike. Some Republican lawmakers wore badges that read "Standing up for taxpayers" to the address.

“If the governor wants to talk about ways to reform government and create savings to reduce the deficit, I will be the first one at the table. However, until that time, he has no business asking working Pennsylvanians to send more money to Harrisburg," Sen. Scott Wagner, R-Spring Garden Township, said in a release.

Cut spending: Klunk saw some irony in Wolf raising concern about the deficit while also asking for increased spending.

"I don't know how the governor can walk in there and say we have a crisis and also ask for more spending," she said.

Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, said the General Assembly has to look at ways to curb spending instead of asking taxpayers for more money.

Wolf's office has found numerous ways to shave spending and is projecting to meet its goal of saving $150 million by the end of this fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Though Wolf's remarks were perceived as harsh, Rep. Kevin Schreiber, D-York City, said the governor was simply laying out the facts.

Wolf has long said he wants increases in education spending coupled with a balanced budget, Schreiber noted.

"I thought the governor's message was very clear and on point," Schreiber said. "We were one day away from passing a budget."

— Reach Greg Gross at ggross@yorkdispatch.com.