Is compromise in air as new budget deadline looms?

Greg Gross
  • The last impasse, which lasted nine months, caused numerous social service agencies to borrow money.
  • York County drew down the entirety of a $20 million line of credit it opened during the impasse.

The monthslong state budget impasse that lasted into this year had a devastating effect on the York City-based Community Progress Council.

As the much-needed state funding — not to mention federal dollars funneled through Harrisburg — dried up, the council was forced to close its doors for four days in November and staff members shifted their sights to keeping afloat.

"We didn't talk about improvement. We talked about survival for a very long time," said Robin Rohrbaugh, the council's president and CEO.

At the same time, funding to county governments, school districts and other social service agencies across the state also was cut off, causing most to open lines of credit and cut services.

As the July 1 state budget deadline nears, Rohrbaugh and a county official said they don't want to be put in the same situation again and are urging lawmakers to get this one done on time.

"I think the senators and representatives are well aware of how the impasse affected their counties," said President Commissioner Susan Byrnes, who met with lawmakers Thursday to discuss the budget. "That's a motivator to come together and get things done."

Compromise: Some York County lawmakers said the recent rash of historic bills signed into law could be a sign that the state budget will be on time this year or, at worst, no more than a little late.

"After (the impasse) last year and Donald Trump (becoming the presumptive Republican nominee for president), I'm done making predictions," state Rep. Kevin Schreiber, D-York City, said when asked when he believes a budget will be signed into law.

The York City Democrat noted lawmakers were able to build bridges to pass medical marijuana in April, a fair education funding bill earlier this month and, most recently, the historic revision of wine sales last week. All of the bills were signed into law by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

"That was a huge step and was another example of Republicans and Democrats working together," the governor's spokesman, Jeff Sheridan, said.

Representatives are expected to take up reforming pensions for newly hired state workers and teachers soon, state Reps. Seth Grove and Stan Saylor said.

"It sounds like it's going to be fairly responsible," Grove said.

Rep. Seth Grove discusses Gov. Tom Wolf's answer to application for special relief during an interview at his office in West Manchester Township, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016.

The budget: But there are still clear hurdles in ideology that remain when it comes to the budget.

Wolf, in his $33.3 billion 2016-17 fiscal year budget proposal, is again asking for increased education funding and tax increases. House Republicans again stand strongly opposed to tax increases.

"In my opinion, any tax increases are off the table," said Saylor, R-Windsor Township.

Grove, R-Dover Township, said he believes a tax hike isn't needed.

"I'm absolutely confident we can balance a budget" without tax increases, he said.

Schreiber said he hopes some of Wolf's proposals will be included in the budget as a compromise, considering the liquor modernization bill that became law.

Kevin Schreiber

Sheridan said Wolf remains steadfast in asking for $250 million in new education funding, for $34 million in additional funds to combat the opioid crisis and for the budget to be one that is balanced and fills the roughly $2 billion structural deficit.

"We have to have a truly balanced budget," he said.

But Wolf isn't wedded to any specific revenue package, Sheridan said, adding that budget discussions between Republican leadership and the administration are going well and progressing.

What's at stake: But if a budget deal isn't reached and an impasse happens, Rohrbaugh said there's little the Community Progress Council can do to financially prepare.

The council receives nearly all of its funding for its $10.5 million yearly budget from and through the state and has until June 30, the end of the state's fiscal year, to allocate it. Any unallocated money has to be sent back to Harrisburg. That means the council can't put money in a rainy day fund for use during an impasse.

At the county level, services in the Area Agency on Aging were scaled back, and payments to agencies that provide support to its Human Services Department were halted just after the last impasse started in July.

In October, the county was forced to open a $20 million line of credit that was used to pay employees and its debts. The county completely drew down the line of credit but made good on repaying the loan in January after a partial budget, which released money to counties, was signed by Wolf. He let the rest of the budget become law in March without his signature.

Byrnes said she doesn't want to see the county have to go through the same trials again this year.

"It would be very difficult," she said of back-to-back crippling budget impasses. "I wouldn't want to put York countians through that again."

School districts, too, were impacted by the impasse, and Red Lion Area School District officials in March said it would be out of money if the stalemate ran another two months or so.

But the district lowered its tax rate earlier this month, indicating the district's financial house is back in order.

"Fiscally, we're in a good spot," said board member Joel Ogle. "As long as a budget is passed remotely on time, in July or August, there's no real issues."

— Reach Greg Gross at ggross@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @ggrossyd.