Could budget issues arise again for Wolf, GOP in 2016-17?
March 25, 2016 12:22 AM
Legislators left the Capitol in Harrisburg on Wednesday with a budget in place, but the standoff over the spending plan and Republican-crafted supplemental appropriations bill may have lingering effects.
Legislators left the Capitol in Harrisburg on Wednesday with a budget in place, but the standoff over the spending plan and Republican-crafted supplemental appropriations bill may have lingering effects. Starting next week, the governor and legislators say they will start negotiations for the budget for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1.
By Karen Langley, Kate Giammarise and Chris Potter / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
After nearly nine months of watching the Pennsylvania state budget impasse, some observers said Thursday that the coming year could look a lot like the past year.
Whether a similar outcome would be acceptable was a matter of perspective.
“This is an interregnum,” said Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll and a longtime observer of state politics. “This isn’t a truce. This is just a temporary moment, and a transition to the next battle, which actually has been going on. Both sides are going to stay exactly where they are as we move into the next round.”
On Wednesday, Gov. Tom Wolf announced he would allow a Republican-crafted supplemental appropriations bill to become law without his signature, a move that both Republicans and Democrats seemed to accept as completing the state budget. Mr. Wolf, a Democrat, said it was time to move on from the fight over the 2015-16 budget and to the challenge of the 2016-17 budget, for the fiscal year that will begin July 1.
In doing so, Mr. Wolf relented from months of refusing to complete a budget with education funding he said was insufficient and without the tax increases he said were needed to close the state’s structural deficit. The Republican legislative majorities avoided approving a tax increase, but they also deferred a chance to make progress in their efforts to change the retirement systems for state and public school workers and the state system of wine and liquor sales.
To Matthew Brouillette, president and CEO of the free-market Commonwealth Foundation, the governor’s announcement was a ”victory for the people of Pennsylvania.”
“I think Gov. Wolf failed to assess accurately the lay of the land,” Mr. Brouillette said of the impasse. “You have Republicans with 50-year margins of majorities that were not willing to embrace the highest taxes in the entire country.”
On the other side of the political policy spectrum, Marc Stier, director of the left-leaning Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, said news the Republican supplemental budget would take effect was a victory for people who oppose new funding for education and who don’t care about the state’s structural deficit.
“From our point of view, it wasn’t a good day,” he said.
A Franklin & Marshall survey released Thursday found that more registered voters hold the Legislature responsible for the late state budget than hold the governor responsible, although it found big differences in how Republicans and Democrats view the situation. The poll found that 79 percent of voters believe elected officials should compromise to finish a budget, compared with 17 percent who believe officials should stand firm on principle even if a budget is not passed.
Starting next week, the governor and legislators say they will start negotiations for the coming fiscal year’s budget.
Robert Jubelirer, a Republican who served as Senate president pro tem for more than 20 years, said it looks as if that will be difficult.
”Are we going to have a budget by July 1? If I had to predict, I would say it’s not likely,” Mr. Jubelirer said. ”Somehow, some way, there needs to be a meeting of the minds, and I don’t know how that’s going to happen.”
Michael Manzo, longtime chief of staff for former House Speaker Bill DeWeese, a Democrat, credited Mr. Wolf with accomplishments, saying the governor showed the General Assembly he will not back down easily, and also focused the debate on the state’s structural deficit.
“They’re at least on standby now that they aren’t dealing with a pushover,” Mr. Manzo said.
Allen Kukovich, a Democratic former state representative and senator from Westmoreland County, attributed the impasse to increased partisanship, and said: ”It wouldn’t have mattered who the Democratic governor was.”
As Pennsylvania went without any budget for nearly six months, many school districts borrowed money to stay open. In late December, when Mr. Wolf signed into law much of a Republican-supported budget, he allowed about half a year’s funding to flow to the schools, to try to bring legislators back to negotiations.
Ron Cowell, president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center, said he gives Mr. Wolf credit for being ”an outspoken and committed advocate for appropriate state funding for education.” Mr. Cowell acknowledged that many aspects of the budget disputes remain unchanged, but he said that a looming structural deficit could be “more compelling.”
Patrick Dowd, the executive director of Allies for Children, said that without a change in the discussion about taxes, schools will experience a crisis next year. School districts got through the impasse by spending local tax revenue, reserves and borrowed money, he said.
“But if we go through this again, districts have spent those reserves, they’ve borrowed,” Mr. Dowd said. “The crisis could emerge quickly.”
Karen Langley: firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley. Kate Giammarise: email@example.com or 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise. Chris Potter: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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