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Over And Over Again

News on the state budget impasse these days is like a recurring bad dream.  Late into the third month without a state funding or financing plan, each morning still starts with the news that the state is without a budget agreement.

Last week the Senate, and this week the House passed stopgap budget measures along party line votes, with the ostensible purpose of getting much needed money from the state and federal funds to schools, local governments and social service providers.  That was done despite an assurance from Governor Wolf that he will quickly veto those bills at his earliest opportunity – probably Monday.

The stopgap (SB 1000) would release about $11.2 billion in state funds and free up billions of dollars in federal funding, using the Wolf-vetoed budget bill as the template for how the money would be appropriated. This would provide four months of spending, dating back to July 1.

House Republicans pushed forward, arguing that the Governor could easily have approved many of these items at the end of June, if he had used his line item veto power and not vetoed the entire budget and fiscal code legislation.  They note that about ¾ of all line items in the overall budget are not up for debate and that agreements on those issues were reached this spring.  Wolf countered that the GOP stopgap was just “poking me in the eye” and ignores the need for more permanent solutions.

Republican House member Jeff Pyle (R, Armstrong) said, “We need to make this money move. You can stand there and say ‘this is not what we want it to be,” but …when someone is floating in the ocean, all they want is a life preserver – they don’t need Club Med to pull up next to them.”  Both sides insist they are being responsible and working to avoid long term problems, and both sides still insist they are the only ones offering compromises.

RECAP: Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman said this week that legislators and the Governor remain about $1 billion apart on the size and nature of structural deficits.  Republicans say they cannot support major broad based tax increases and want significant pension reform, privatization of the state liquor system and property tax relief.  They have offered to spend an additional $400 million on schools, as Wolf wants. But that money is built around their liquor privatization plans. Wolf and the Democrats have proposed major school funding and distribution changes, pension reforms, a severance tax on natural gas and property tax relief from sales and income tax hikes. 

Wolf has also offered an alternative on liquor, having the state’s wholesale and retail liquor system managed by a private contractor for a 10-15 year period and protecting all existing jobs.  Of that proposal, House Leader Dave Reed said “We’re happy that he finally recognizes and concedes that a private sector operation would be more efficient and more effective than a public sector operation. We just really just need more information on before we can give a concrete answer or counterproposal. But it’s my understanding that we’re going to work through getting some of those answers.”

Both sides insist they are willing to work with each other, but that each has some items that are non-negotiable. However, for the first time this week, one House Democrat, Pete Daley (D, Fayette) suggested that some Democrats might flip their votes if the Governor does not compromise more on the budget.

What does seem clear is that, as House Majority Leader Dave Reed said, the votes simply to not exist within the General Assembly to pass the revenue for what Wolf wants now.  “That is the only thing holding up a budget agreement,” he said.  You need 102 votes in the House and 26 in the Senate before the governor gets to put his signature on a bill – those votes are simply not there.”