Wolf's budget has 'no chance,' GOP leader says

Gov. Wolf (center) delivers his budget address to a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate as House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) and Lt. Gov. Mike Stack (right) listen.
Gov. Wolf (center) delivers his budget address to a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate as House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) and Lt. Gov. Mike Stack (right) listen. (CHRIS KNIGHT / AP)
Posted: February 11, 2016

HARRISBURG - Pitching many of the same ideas that led to this fiscal year's lingering budget impasse, Gov. Wolf on Tuesday unveiled a $33.3 billion spending plan for the next year that would raise more than $2.7 billion from new or increased taxes to close a gaping deficit and boost public school funding.

Wolf delivered his plan in a speech to a legislature that has repeatedly rejected his attempts to have any completed budget passed. So this one was laced with sharp rebukes to lawmakers, and dire predictions about what looms if the gridlock doesn't end: tens of thousands of teacher layoffs, overcrowded classrooms, higher property taxes, and devastating cuts in services for the disabled.

"If you won't face up to the reality of the situation we're in ...," Wolf warned, "if you ignore that time bomb ticking . . . if you won't take seriously your responsibility to the people of Pennsylvania, then find another job."

Neither his words nor his delivery landed well among top legislators. Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) called the speech "absurd," "outrageous," politically motivated, and unlikely to accomplish anything "other than dividing us further."

House Majority Leader Dave Reed said there was "no chance" Wolf would find the votes for such a budget. "Unless the governor happened to pick up a leprechaun in a pot of gold in his Jeep, there is no chance that budget is based in reality," said Reed, a Republican from Indiana County.

The volleys seemed likely to deepen the divide that began a year ago with Wolf's first budget proposal and intensified during the ensuing months of budget agreements, collapses, vetoes, and gridlock.

Still, Wolf had no choice. By state law, the governor is required to outline his spending proposal for the following year.

His latest proposal, for the fiscal year starting July 1, calls for raising the income tax by nearly 11 percent, from 3.07 percent to 3.4 percent.

He also would extend the state's 6 percent sales tax to basic cable television, movie theater tickets, and digital downloads; slap a new 6.5 percent levy on natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale; and increase by $1 the tax on a pack of cigarettes, while also implementing taxes on smokeless tobacco, cigars, and e-cigarettes.

Wolf proposed using the new money to close a projected $1.8 billion deficit and boost education funding.

Under the plan, public schools would get $200 million in new funding, with an additional $60 million for early childhood education and $50 million for special education.

Wolf's plan also calls for increasing by 5 percent funding for the state-related universities, including Temple University and Pennsylvania State University, as well as the State System of Higher Education universities and community colleges.

The proposal would boost Pennsylvania's minimum wage to $10.15 an hour and create 50 so-called "health homes" to help residents with heroin and opioid addictions.

To pay for mandated increases in prison and social-services spending, while continuing to fund important programs, the governor said, the state has one of two paths: raising new revenue or slashing funding for schools and human services. He favors the former.

Wolf's proposal calls for generating the bulk of the $2.7 billion in new revenue - or nearly $1.8 billion - from changes to the sales and personal income taxes. An additional $217 million would be raised from a new tax on natural gas drilling.

Wolf also is proposing a new 8 percent tax on casinos for their so-called promotional plays - coupons or rewards for free play that they circulate to attract new customers.

"I can accept that we disagree about the proper role of government in securing a more prosperous future for our commonwealth," he told the legislature, "but I can't accept . . . another irresponsible budget that ignores the fact of this fiscal crisis."

If 2015 is any indication, Wolf's budget is bound for another fight in the GOP-controlled legislature.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) criticized what he called Wolf's "massive tax-and-spend" ideas, which he said fail to strike a balance between what Wolf wants and what is realistic.

"Liberalism is alive and well in the Wolf administration," Scarnati said after the speech. "And to use fear as a motive to raise taxes? . . . I resent that - that only tax increases can avert a crisis."

It was the House that derailed the last budget deal, just before Christmas. House Republicans decided they could not back the tax increases Wolf wanted for the plan, even after their leaders had agreed to a tentative deal.

Instead of the agreed-to plan, the legislature ended up sending Wolf a scaled-down spending proposal that would not have raised any broad-based taxes, such as sales. It did include additional dollars for schools, though not nearly as much as Wolf wanted.

Wolf partially vetoed that plan, leaving billions of dollars hanging in the balance. He agreed to release six months worth of emergency funds for schools and more than $9 billion for human services; he used his line-item veto authority to eliminate or reduce other pieces of the proposal.

Since that time, the sides have held several negotiating sessions, but offered no signs they are close to breaking the impasse - even as hearings are expected to start this month on next year's spending plan.

Asked Tuesday if House Republicans had been told of any progress, Rep. Scott Petri (R., Bucks) summed it up in one word: "None."

Rep. Mike Vereb (R., Montgomery) said the governor's speech might complicate an already fraught process.

"It reminded me of being back in school when the principal scolds the student body," said Vereb, who recently announced he would not run for reelection, in part because of the polarized political climate in Harrisburg.

Still, he said he thought the governor was being "straightforward." Said Vereb: "I think today is the big game, but as things calm down and people retreat to the locker room, it's going to be a chance for them to regroup."

House Minority Leader Frank Dermody (D., Allegheny) said the governor told the truth despite the political "heartburn" it might cause.

Sen. Vince Hughes (D., Phila.), the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, put it this way: "The people of Pennsylvania need to know the real deal."

acouloumbis@phillynews.com

717-787-5934@AngelasInk

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|