Pennsylvania Legislature trapped in budgetary twilight zone
Strange happenings in Harrisburg
January 25, 2016 12:00 AM
Matt Rourke/Associated Press
The Pennsylvania Capitol building. The state government finds itself in a puzzling sort of financial limbo.
By Kate Giammarise/ Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau
HARRISBURG — The lack of a completed state budget more than halfway through the fiscal year is giving rise to a number of strange and unprecedented situations in Harrisburg.
After a compromise budget deal fell apart in December, the Legislature sent Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf a $30.26 billion Republican-crafted budget, just days before Christmas. Mr. Wolf signed into law $23.39 billion worth of state spending, but vetoed large portions of the bill — including half a year’s worth of education and corrections spending — in order to keep Republican legislative leaders negotiating and because he said the budget was not balanced. But a final budget doesn’t seem to be on the horizon anytime soon. Many Capitol observers don’t expect any major action until after the April primary election.
In the meantime, Harrisburg is in a puzzling sort of limbo.
Mr. Wolf is set to give his annual budget address to legislators Feb. 9 for the fiscal year that begins July 1, even though no completed spending plan is in place for the current year.
In a normal year, the speech is a time when a governor lays out his vision for next year’s budget, as well as any major initiatives he wants to pursue. But Mr. Wolf will be in the odd position of having to discuss his goals for next year with the current year’s — particularly his quest for more revenue and education spending — still uncertain.
“I’ve been in the Legislature for 17 years and never seen anything like this, and to my knowledge this situation is totally unprecedented,” said Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill.
The governor’s yearly budget speech is typically followed by several weeks of Capitol budget hearings in both the House and Senate, when lawmakers get to question Cabinet officials about their department’s operations and spending needs. And it appears likely that those hearings will take place this year without a final budget having been signed into law.
There is no precedent in the modern era for an incumbent governor delivering a budget address for the next fiscal year while his own budget for the current fiscal year is substantially incomplete, said Joseph McLaughlin, director of the Institute for Public Affairs at Temple University, who also authored a history of the Legislature.
Then, there’s the question of continued state spending.
The Senate could vote this week on a bill that would immediately appropriate about $939.4 million to the Department of Corrections, essentially what Mr. Wolf vetoed in December. The budget Mr. Wolf partially approved in December would have spent $1.8 billion on corrections; the governor only approved $956 million.
Those funds are now almost exhausted.
“Obviously, we cannot have the Corrections Department close,” Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said during a Senate appropriations committee meeting last week, though he acknowledged that was an unlikely possibility.
“The Corrections folks may run out of appropriated dollars at some point in time in the near future. That does not mean in any way, shape, or form — and my conversations with the administration confirm this — there’s no intention of shutting down Corrections,” said Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills.
From July 1 of last year until the partial budget was signed in December, much state spending continued as normal, particularly for anything concerning health, safety and welfare of citizens; this included Corrections spending.
But Mr. Corman argued last week that because a partial budget is in place and the treasurer doesn’t have the authority to spend money above what an agency’s appropriation is, the Legislature and governor need to agree to finalize the Corrections Department’s budget.
“We [legislators] appropriate. … I don’t believe the treasurer has that power,” Mr. Corman said. “I think we are setting a dangerous precedent that’s easily solved [by passing the bill].”
A spokesman for Treasurer Timothy Reese declined to comment.
“We’re obviously on uncharted ground right now,” said Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, the chairman of the appropriations committee.
“From a political point of view, this is a highly unusual situation, and one that does not shed positive light on either the governor or the Legislature,” said Thomas Baldino, professor of political science at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre.
Meanwhile, at the Public Employee Retirement Commission, which analyzes legislation dealing with pensions, employees are continuing their work, despite the agency’s entire $962,000 budget having been part of Mr. Wolf’s line-item veto in December.
The statutes that were passed by the Legislature creating the commission haven’t been repealed and are still in effect.
Employees are still working and being paid, but the agency can’t spend any money beyond that, even on basic office supplies.
“It’s the twilight zone,” said James McAneny, PERC’s executive director. “We are aware of that … we are in an area that nobody has been before. Not just us, but the whole commonwealth.”
Kate Giammarise: email@example.com, 1-717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.
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