Wolf’s big decision: to sign or veto bill in 6-month impasse

December 26, 2015 GMT

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — After butting heads with the Republican-controlled Legislature, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf faces perhaps the biggest decision of his short tenure: Sign a budget that falls short of everything he’s sought or risk more damage to the schools and social services he wants to help.

Wolf’s office said it did not expect a decision before Monday, and the governor has options. What he does could set the tone for how the Legislature deals with him for the three years left in his first term.

He could sign the bill. He could let it become law without his signature. He could sign it while eliminating any number of the individual spending items in it. Or he could veto the whole thing and indefinitely extend the state government’s six-month budget impasse.

“It seems that the governor is left with the ultimate leadership decision to make,” said Peg Dierkers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Hanging in the balance are more layoffs at domestic violence shelters and other social services agencies, more closings of state-subsidized pre-kindergarten programs and the potential that school districts will not reopen after the holiday break or run out of money.

Meanwhile, vendors such as landlords, insurers and utilities await the payment of hundreds of millions of dollars by school districts, counties and the state. There is also alarm that business tax credit programs subsidizing private and parochial school tuition scholarships will expire.

The legislation on Wolf’s desk — the main appropriations bill in a $30.3 billion budget package, a 4.5 percent spending increase — was written by House GOP leaders after they broke away from a broader compromise arrangement they had helped negotiate with Wolf and Senate leaders. It resembles a GOP budget plan that Wolf vetoed June 30 and won the votes of just two Democrats.

It contains about $500 million less than the package that Wolf had supported, would carry a smaller tax increase to prop it up and sends substantially less aid to public schools and social services than what Wolf had sought. The pared-down spending bill emerged Wednesday when it became clear that an eleventh-hour effort to revive the Senate GOP’s legislation to restructure public pension benefits had stalled in the House. As a result, Senate Republicans pulled their support from the bipartisan deal with Wolf and turned to the House GOP’s spending plan.

It leaves big question marks.

It was unaccompanied by legislation directing the distribution of nearly $6 billion in public school aid. Legislation to send an annual subsidy of nearly $600 million to Penn State, Temple, Pitt, Lincoln and the University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary school remains in the House and apparently cannot pass without a tax increase of some sort.

David Patti, president of the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Business Council, a business advocacy organization, said Wolf can sign the budget bill and use the unfinished business to shoehorn more concessions from the House GOP.

“I don’t think him signing means he loses and the GOP wins,” Patti said. “I just think it means we get to move forward to the next step.”

The Philadelphia-based Education Law Center asked Wolf to veto it. In a blistering statement, the nonprofit that advocates for poor and vulnerable children accused the House of deserting its leaders’ agreement with Wolf. Its budget bill shortchanges schoolchildren and reinforces unacceptable funding inequities, the center said.

The teacher’s union in Philadelphia — where the state’s largest school district said it will close Jan. 29 without state aid — also urged Wolf to veto it.

Counties and social services organizations are torn.

The House GOP’s budget bill perpetuates what some call a decade of cuts to social services, squeezing programs and the wages of people who care for the elderly and disabled. Kristen Rotz, the United Way of Pennsylvania’s president, called the budget a “lose-lose situation.”

“However, if dollars don’t start flowing, more layoffs and shutdowns are guaranteed,” Rotz said in a statement.

Domestic violence agencies would get an increase under the House GOP’s budget bill, but human services aid is lacking, and victims of domestic violence often rely on it to put their lives back together, Dierkers said.

“After six months of pain,” Dierkers said, “we’ve kicked the can down the road to be in the same place again come the next budget.”


Marc Levy covers politics and government for The Associated Press in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at mlevy@ap.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/timelywriter. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/author/marc-levy