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Budget Ultimatums, Lack of Consensus Could Push Budget into July

For months now, state leaders have known that the 2014-2015 budget would be a difficult challenge.  Yet through the first quarter of the year, most observers still considered an “on time” budget a realistic prospect.  Now, with the state facing a confirmed $1.4 billion budget gap, Gov. Tom Corbett and legislative leaders have begun to acknowledge that the state’s June 30 deadline is an almost hopeless target.  “Get it done right rather than quickly” is the new mantra.  But this year, right may have many definitions.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Delaware) said Monday that it is unlikely that the $29.4 billion budget plan will be in place by June 30.  Later that day House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) said he thought it was possible to get a budget done, but only if the Senate passed a liquor reform bill which would generate significant revenue.

At the same time, Governor Corbett threw down a gauntlet to the General Assembly on pension reform and liquor privatization, and then said he didn’t intend to even discuss new revenues, unless these big issues were dealt with first.  The Governor has veto power over all or part of the budget, and can force lawmakers to remain in session beyond the June 30 budget deadline. Corbett, who supported Turzai’s liquor system reform last year, appeared to back off on the issue a bit, suggesting reform was more important than revenue on the liquor issue.

Legislative and Administration leaders have told ERG that meetings to date have been more like “quiet time,” with no one wanting to be the first to offer suggestions for revenue sources to close the gap, or which programs to cut.  For two weeks, the House has been unable to get a majority to support a pension reform bill supported by leadership and the Governor, and again this week, the Senate failed to get the votes to even move a more moderate liquor bill that would not generate significant state revenues.

Meanwhile, Democrats seized the opportunity to launch attacks at all three by insisting on Medicaid expansion with federal dollars, passage of a severance tax, and increasing education funding.

During a press conference on Tuesday, Corbett said he still doesn’t like the idea of taxing gas production, but left room for consideration of it as an option. Budget Secretary Charles Zogby later said the administration won’t rule out any revenue source other than hikes of broad-based taxes, like personal income and sales taxes.

“I’m not ruling out a severance tax, you didn’t hear me rule out a severance tax,” Zogby told reporters Tuesday.