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False Start, Override Votes Fail, Back to Square One?

Late last week, and for a day or so this week, it appeared that the ice blocking a budget solution might melt a bit.  Governor Wolf and legislative leaders had discussed a pension reform proposal from Wolf along with Republican promises of increased education funding.  GOP legislators had hoped Wolf would agree to the ideas, to kick start further budget talks, but on Tuesday, Wolf said he needed more time to sort out questions about potential savings tied to the pension overhaul and wanted additional items put on the negotiating agenda.

Republicans had offered a non-negotiable proposal to spend $400 million in new funding for basic education, a $300 million increase from their vetoed budget, in return for Wolf agreeing to the Senate’s revised SB 1 pension reform bill. Senate spokesman Drew Crompton said, “There’s no ambiguity here. $400 million for basic ed and he signs the modified Senate Bill 1. That’s it.”

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives came back to Harrisburg Tuesday for a one-day session with Republicans planning a series of votes to override portions of the Governor’s veto of the entire budget passed in June. 

After hours of debate and votes, the House adjourned until September 21 with no budget in place and negotiations scheduled to continue.  Then on Wednesday, the Governor’s Office postponed the negotiating session that had been scheduled, and said there was no new date in place to meet again.  House Majority Leader Dave Reed said, “No response just leaves things in limbo here for the time being. We are wasting valuable time where we could be getting a final budget proposal put forth. We asked the administration just to give us an answer so we can figure out what direction to take at this point.”

“Negotiating is not us compromising on our ideas and the governor keeping his priorities as non-negotiable,” said Reed.

In the House, 20 times, on 20 issues, Democrats hung together and would not provide any votes to override.  The votes could have enacted more than $3 billion in undisputed line items from the vetoed budget.  Republicans repeatedly put House Democrats in the awkward position of voting against funding for rape crisis programs, domestic violence programs, higher education grants and school food services, among other items lawmakers would normally cringe to oppose.

But Democrats stuck to the argument that the process was simply political theatre to make Republicans appear sympathetic to the plight of vulnerable nonprofits and the people they serve.
“This is a ploy to try and get people to vote against human services,” said House Minority Leader Frank Dermody.

The tactic also raised questions of whether lawmakers were wading into a constitutional quagmire, considering Wolf vetoed the entire budget, not just individual line items. At Dermody’s request, the Legislative Reference Bureau issued an advisory opinion that cast doubt upon lawmakers’ authority to override only select portions of Wolf’s full budget veto.

“Under the Constitution of Pennsylvania, the General Assembly must reconsider a vetoed bill in the manner in which the bill was vetoed,” the bureau wrote in its opinion. “Because the Governor vetoed the General Appropriation Act of 2015 in its entirety, the bill must be reconsidered as a whole not on a line-by-line basis.”

State Rep. Bryan Cutler (R, Lancaster) argued that while the move was unprecedented, lawmakers were within their bounds. Absent any specific prescriptions in the state constitution, the assumption is legislators have “any authority that would be available,” he said.  “There is not a strict prohibition contained in the constitution.”

Wolf said he thought the override votes were political posturing and did not make sense under the state constitution, but he also said they wouldn’t harm ongoing budget negotiations.  “I don’t know why they’re doing it,” Wolf said of Republicans after emerging from the budget meeting. “I wouldn’t care to infer anything from what they’re doing.”

Reed said they had hoped providing a variety of choices might create a chance for a breakthrough.   Obviously that didn’t happen,” Reed said, “I guess we’re back to square one.”