Gov. Wolf vetoes parts of 'garbage' budget, lets school funds flow
December 29, 2015 3:25 PM
Matt Rourke/Associated Press
Gov. Tom Wolf: “For six months I thought we were making some real progress. It was by fits and starts. But we’re now at a point where I don’t want to hold the children of Pennsylvania hostage for the inability of folks here in Harrisburg to get the job done.”
By Karen Langley and Mary Niederberger / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday signed into law much of a Republican-passed state spending plan, relieving financial pressure from Pennsylvania schools and political pressure from the state officials who have spent six months of the fiscal year trying to put a budget in place.
Mr. Wolf, a first-year Democrat, called the spending bill delivered to him “garbage” that did not balance and provided too little funding for education. But the governor, who vetoed a full state budget in June and a short-term funding bill in September, said he would no longer stand in the way of state money flowing to schools.
“For six months I thought we were making some real progress,” Mr. Wolf said. “It was by fits and starts. But we’re now at a point where I don’t want to hold the children of Pennsylvania hostage for the inability of folks here in Harrisburg to get the job done.”
The governor signed off on $2.53 billion of the main K-12 education funding line, a sum his office said was the amount schools would have received through Dec. 31 under the GOP-crafted budget, which would have added $100 million over 12 months from last year’s levels. He signed into law the bill’s full funding amounts for county child welfare, rape crisis and homeless assistance, areas for which funding had been held up during the impasse.
“I think there was a collective sigh of relief among the education and social services communities,” said Nicole Molinaro Karaczun, chief program officer of the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh. “But I think he made a good point when he said everyone has to get back to work.”
In total, Mr. Wolf approved $23.39 billion of spending, striking the remainder of what had been a $30.26 billion budget through line-item vetoes. The General Assembly has not sent the governor the tax changes that would have been needed to pay for the budget, and Mr. Wolf’s spokesman said that if the governor had signed the bill in full, Pennsylvania would have ended the year more than half a billion dollars out of balance. The signing of the budget also triggers the release of $24.4 billion in federal funds, according to the governor’s office.
House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, said the next step would be discussions among the governor’s office and Republicans and Democrats from both legislative chambers. House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Marshall, told members the House would not return to session until after Jan. 3.
Mr. Reed said there are “serious concerns” with the reductions Mr. Wolf made to budget lines funding K-12 education, state prisons, higher education and the medical assistance program, which provides reimbursements to hospitals. “I don’t think those line items can stay the way they are for the entire budget,” Mr. Reed said. “He has certainly kept hostages ... to be able to force everybody back to the table.”
The governor also made cuts to funding for the House and Senate.
In recent weeks, it had seemed that a resolution could be at hand, as the Senate approved a $30.78 billion budget supported by Mr. Wolf. But House Republicans balked, and the Senate went on to send the governor the spending plan crafted by the House GOP. Accompanying pieces of legislation, to change retirement benefits for future state and public school workers and to loosen restrictions on wine sales, did not make it to his desk.
“This budget is doubly frustrating because we were so close to a reasonable one,” Mr. Wolf said as he announced the line-item vetoes.
Republicans cast the signing of part of a state budget as an acknowledgement by Mr. Wolf that his full vetoes could no longer be defended. The chairman of the state GOP, Rob Gleason, said in a statement that Mr. Wolf had “admitted his multibillion-dollar mistake.”
“When Tom Wolf issued a complete veto of the Republicans’ on-time budget last June, he needlessly plunged our school districts and nonprofits into a six-month crisis,” Mr. Gleason said. “It is tragic that so many schools and nonprofits were faced with unpaid bills, layoffs and even closures because Tom Wolf used them as political pawns in his reckless budget game.”
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, said Mr. Wolf “had no choice” in how he responded to the budget bill.
“Republicans left town without providing the appropriate level of revenue, some more than $500 million,” he said. “The governor had no choice to do what he had to do. He was also compassionate in knowing that we needed to help our school districts and our social service agencies receive funding they needed.”
At the Crisis Center North, which serves northern and western Allegheny County, staff had to stop giving emergency relocation funds to victims and furloughs were on the horizon for January, said executive director Grace Coleman.
“We couldn’t help relocate victims in the most dangerous locations by providing funding so we are delighted to hear that funding is being released,” Ms. Coleman said.
School officials are also happy with the release of six months of state subsidies, but also are waiting to see if the final budget includes the funding increases promised by the governor.
“It’s definitely a relief and an acknowledgement of the struggle public schools and state agencies were facing. It looks as if it isn’t over... but at least districts can rest assured that they can operate in the new year,” said West Mifflin Area Superintendent Dan Castagna.
Getting the state money means that West Mifflin won’t have to borrow from the line of credit the school board approved this month, Mr. Castagna said.
The news of the release of state funds was especially sweet in the Clairton School District, where officials planned to use the last of the district’s cash on hand to make today’s payroll.
“If the governor hadn’t done this, we had planned to borrow $1.5 million to get us through to the beginning of April,” said board president Richard Livingston. He said the board considered closing the schools rather than borrowing but didn’t want to hurt student test scores, which have been on the increase in recent years.
“We are extremely happy that the governor decided to do this but now, hopefully, they will decide on a full budget,” Mr. Livingston said.
Karen Langley: firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley. Mary Niederberger: email@example.com or 412-263-1590.
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The fourth column shows how the budget lines were funded today by the governor. The yellow highlighting indicates amounts that are different, or blue-lined, from the pared-down state House version of the budget, which is the third column.
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