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Irresistible Force – Meet Immovable Object: PA Budget edition

The paradox of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object seems apt for the state budget process this year, as the battle of perceived mandates continued through the evening of June 30. Of course, reality tells us the paradox is a false premise. Existence of either would make the other impossible.

On Tuesday, meeting its June 30 deadline, the General Assembly passed a $30.1 billion state budget which increases education funding, without raising taxes. Nevertheless, Governor Tom Wolf vetoed the bill just a few minutes after receiving it.

Throughout the budget process since March, Wolf and his staff maintained that Pennsylvania’s voters had given him a mandate to change how government works, and to increase education funding. But GOP legislative leaders continued to assert that they too had received a mandate through increased membership in the General Assembly on a mandate to “rein in state government spending and hold the line on taxes.”

The Senate had insisted on pension reform as a condition of a budget passing, and the House insisted on privatization of the state liquor system. The Governor was insisting on a severance tax and expansion of sales and income taxes to reduce property taxes across the state. To date, no one is getting the things they insisted on – the Governor can veto any budget and as long as the minority Democrats stay with him, the General Assembly can’t override a veto. And the GOP leadership can refuse to pass the Governor’s initiatives, blocking him from accomplishing his goals.

The battle now moves further, to the meeting rooms of the capitol and to the public, with both sides hoping that public outcry will help them make their case in negotiations. Wolf, the General Assembly’s Democrats and their Political Action Committees have already begun pushing to put pressure on Republicans who oppose his plans as being anti-education, pro-big business and anti-jobs. House and Senate Republican leaders and members are also actively seeking to educate the public on why they support no new taxes, pension reform, and limiting government’s reach into the “middle class pockets” for programs that protect unions.

With passage of their budget, the Senate adjourned until September 21 or the call of the President Pro Tempore, and the House is technically adjourned until August 25, but realistically, if/when a budget agreement is reached, leaders will call the members back to Harrisburg

Until Tuesday night, no Pennsylvania Governor had vetoed an entire budget in the 46 years since the state’s current Constitution took effect in 1968. “The math doesn’t work,” Wolf said. “I ran a business, and if I took a proposal like this to my bank, they would have thrown me out for presenting a budget that doesn’t add up and doesn’t generate growth.”

Governor Wolf invited legislative leaders to a meeting Wednesday afternoon to start discussions on a budget reset, but after a half hour meeting, those who attended said they were going to seek common ground, and would meet again next Monday and Tuesday after a several day “cooling off period.” Both sides agreed that there was respect, if serious differences, and that they expect to get a budget done, although not likely in the near future.

After the meeting, on Friday, Wolf vetoed the liquor privatization bill, the fiscal code bill and the school funding bill, and has yet to address the pension reform bill as ERG goes to press.

Given the nature of the standoff and the questions about costs, programs and numbers of votes for each of the many pieces of the puzzle, a quick resolution is not expected.

House Appropriations Chairman Bill Adolph (R, Delaware) said, “We are far, far, far apart on numbers, and that’s because what the governor would like to spend takes a lot of taxes, and they’re not sure how many votes they can produce, so it’s going to be a lot of work.”