Disagreements remain as Pennsylvania’s budget deadline nears
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Top Pennsylvania lawmakers worked Thursday to assemble a budget package that is due ahead of the July 1 start of the fiscal year, but behind-the-scenes disagreements remained and rank-and-file lawmakers had yet to hear details about what they will be asked to vote on.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled Legislature have predicted that budget legislation would pass on time and without the protracted, partisan fights that marked Wolf’s first three years in office. A cash surplus is easing the process this year.
The first votes on budget legislation were scheduled for Monday in the House of Representatives.
The outlines of the budget package were expected to be similar to what Wolf sought in his February plan, when the governor asked lawmakers to authorize $34.1 billion in spending, with no increase in taxes on income and sales.
House officials say the final bill will be slightly below $34 billion, although budgetmakers were planning to use various cash maneuvers that veil the true cost of government operations by moving some spending out of the state’s main bank account or delay it to a later fiscal year.
All told, the package could authorize an additional $2 billion in spending, or 6% more, counting Wolf’s more recent request for $750 million to cover cost overruns in the current fiscal year.
Rank-and-file lawmakers had to be briefed on the details, as hundreds of pages of budget legislation were being drafted behind closed doors and Wolf and top lawmakers remained quiet Thursday about the nature of their disagreements.
“I’m not going to mention that, because again, those are in talks and ... I don’t care to talk about things that we’re negotiating,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor said. “I don’t want to put anybody in a tough spot.”
Among the known outstanding issues was Wolf’s backchannel request in recent days that lawmakers authorize the first steps toward Pennsylvania joining a regional consortium that sets a price and caps on greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants.
Also unresolved was Wolf’s request for $15 million to help counties cover the cost of new voting machines. Republicans have protested Wolf’s stated intention to decertify voting machines in use last year, while some lawmakers have asked for more cash, sooner, to help counties foot the bill.
Much of the extra spending in the roughly $34 billion package would cover new discretionary aid for public schools, plus extra amounts to meet rising costs for prisons, debt, pension obligations and health care for the poor.
House officials say the final package will carry a little less than Wolf sought for public schools, but more than Wolf sought for state-subsidized universities, including Penn State, plus higher reimbursements for nursing homes.
Meanwhile, Republicans are insisting on ending an approximately $50 million cash welfare program for the poor who are temporarily unable to work, a program that dates back to the Depression.
Vocational and technical education training programs are expected to get millions more, along the lines of what Wolf requested, and Wolf and lawmakers say they are intent on putting more money into the state’s relatively bare budgetary reserve.