House GOP returns to consider state budget funding proposals
Members of the Republican-controlled House returned to Harrisburg on Monday, Sept. 11, to consider, among other legislation, how to fund a $32 billion spending plan approved in June.
A group of 18 rank-and-file House Republicans proposed a plan last week that they called the Taxpayers' Budget, which relies heavily on one-time fund transfers from special or restricted funds that the legislators say are operating with a surplus.
Those transfers would include more than $350 million from the Public Transportation Trust Fund, $100 million from the Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund and $5 million from the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Fund.
Saylor: House Appropriations Chairman Stan Saylor, R-Windsor Township, said the 121-member House GOP caucus planned to meet Monday to discuss the proposal and see if it had enough support to pass a full House vote.
Saylor, trying to close the books on his first budget as appropriations chairman, said the caucus members intended to stay at the Capitol all week to get the revenue issue resolved.
"I'm not happy it has taken this long," he said, suggesting that Gov. Tom Wolf should be doing a better job leading by bringing members from both parties in the House and Senate together.
Wolf has offered his endorsement of a $2.2 billion revenue package centered on borrowing and tax increases on utility services that was passed in late July by the Republican-controlled Senate.
Saylor didn't say that the House wouldn't consider the Senate's proposal, but he said his chamber will not pass a bill increasing taxes on utility services. The other proposal on the table would involve an increase in personal income tax, he said.
Saylor did not specifically offer his support for his members' Taxpayers' Budget proposal, but he said legislators have a legitimate right to question those funds' surpluses and reserves.
"A lot of these reserves have been there a long time," he said. "Why not spend it in the interest of taxpayers?"
Concerns: The proposal has received a lot of pushback from departments using those funds, including the state Department of Agriculture and Department of Transportation.
Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding wrote a letter to legislators detailing his concern that funds taken from the Agricultural Conservation Easement Purchase Fund, as proposed, could prevent counties from protecting farmland against development.
Redding included a list of counties with state funds committed to farmland preservation, including 40 farms in York County with nearly $1.2 million in committed funds.
PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards sent a similar letter to legislators warning that moving $357 million from the Public Transit Trust Fund would lead to a 35 percent reduction in operating subsidies this year for fixed route transit agencies, including $2.4 million less for Rabbit Transit.
Confident: Rep. Dawn Keefer, R-Dillsburg, said she's listened to many of these agency's concerns since she helped to announce the Taxpayers' Budget plan, but she feels confident the plan wouldn't result in the losses being claimed.
"We vetted this plan for seven weeks," she said. "We're not debating the merits of these programs. We're just looking at their reserves. It's about accountability."
Keefer is one of five local House Republicans — with Reps. Seth Grove, Dover Township; Kristin Phillips-Hill, York Township; Kate Klunk, Hanover; and Keth Gillespie, Hellam Township — involved in the proposal.
Keefer, serving her first term, said she believes many of these special funds — which are funded and spent outside of the General Fund — need to be brought back "online," or into the General Fund.
Once that money is back in the General Fund, legislators will have more authority to prioritize where tax dollars are being spent, she said.
Keefer said she and other members involved in the proposal have spent the past week speaking with other legislators, including Democrats and Senate members, and have received positive feedback once they explain their plan in its entirety. She's confident the plan will be voted through in the House this week, she added.
Wolf has warned that he will have to start freezing some state spending if lawmakers don't pass a revenue package by Sept. 15.
— Reach David Weissman at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.