Pennsylvania’s budget impasse comes to an end: ‘We need to move on’

Wolf says the final budget is not balanced, but he will allow the measure to become law

HARRISBURG — After nearly nine months, Pennsylvania’s state budget impasse ground to an end Wednesday, with Gov. Tom Wolf saying he would allow a Republican-crafted appropriations bill to become law without his signature.

Mr. Wolf, a Democrat, said he would not sign the bill because he believes the budget is not balanced, but that by releasing the approximately $6 billion in state funding without his signature, schools will be able to stay open through the end of the year. And he looked ahead, saying: ”We need to move on (from 2015-16). We need to confront the real challenge we have in the (2016-17) budget.”

The appropriations bill will become law at 12:01 a.m. Monday, after Mr. Wolf refrains from acting on it through Sunday, his office said, completing a budget of about $30 billion. The governor and legislative leaders said work on the next state budget, for the year that begins July 1, will start next week.

But for all the relief that will be felt by school districts — some of which sent representatives to the Capitol earlier Wednesday to advocate for completion of the budget — there was little evidence that the governor and legislators are closer to resolving the differences that dragged this year’s state budget nearly three-quarters of a year past its June 30 deadline.

Mr. Wolf, who has pressed for tax increases to boost education funding and close a structural deficit, made clear he does not believe the final appropriations bill is properly funded.

“The money it claims to provide really doesn’t exist,” he said.

And House and Senate Republican leaders made clear they plan to continue resisting tax increases and pushing for changes to the retirement system for state and public school workers and to the system of wine and liquor sales.

Asked why next year would be different than this year, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said: “I don’t know.”

“We all lived through this, and it was difficult to live through, for not just the General Assembly and the governor but for the people of Pennsylvania,” Mr. Corman continued. “And so hopefully we will come to next year with the spirit that we need to get this done.”

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, admitted to more specific worries. “I’ve got a significant concern that our Republican colleagues, particularly in the House, are not going to do anything different than they’ve done over the course of the past eight-and-a-half months,” Mr. Costa said. “That’s my concern, that we find ourselves here in July and August and September doing the same exact thing we did last summer.”

House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, said he saw promise in acknowledgment by some Republican leaders that the state faces a structural budget deficit. “Pennsylvania finally has to pay its bills, and to do that, we have to be honest with the people of Pennsylvania how that’s going to be accomplished,” he said.

Mr. Wolf said he would also allow bills to deliver state money to the state-related universities, which include the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State University, to become law without his signature. But he said he would veto the fiscal code, a bill that implements the budget. The governor’s spokesman, Jeffrey Sheridan, said there were numerous problems with the fiscal code, including what he called intrusion into the authority of the executive.

After the June negotiations typical of budget season failed to produce agreement, Republicans on June 30 sent Mr. Wolf a budget, and he vetoed it. A few months later, they sent him a shorter-term spending plan, and he vetoed that, too. But in late December, the governor approved $23.4 billion of another Republican-crafted plan, through he used line-item vetoes in an attempt to draw legislators back to negotiations. He reduced the main K-12 education line so that schools received only about half a year of funding, and he also targeted funding for state prisons.

Though the state budget was delayed in part because of Mr. Wolf’s desire to increase education funding, schools endured some of the most visible difficulties caused by the impasse. To get through the first half of the year, before they received state money, school districts and the intermediate units that provide them services borrowed about $1 billion, incurring $40 million to $50 million in interest and fees, according to state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.

On Wednesday morning, a group of administrators convened by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials gathered in the Capitol rotunda to ask for the completion of the budget. David Wytiaz, superintendent of the Aliquippa School District in Beaver County, said that as of May 1, the district would have less than $1,000 in its general fund checking account and be unable to meet payroll, obligations to vendors and a $1.1 million bond payment due June 1.

“As you can see, the present status is extremely fragile,” he said. ”We can no longer accept this stalemate to continue.”

The appropriations bill that will become law Monday will deliver more than $3 billion in additional money for the main K-12 education funding line, combining with the funding approved in December to total an increase of $150 million from the previous year.

Providers of human services also felt the effects of the long delay in the budget. Samantha Balbier, executive director of the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership, said Wednesday that nonprofits will be paying the debt service incurred because of the impasse for years, and that nonprofits are concerned the politics of the 2016 election year will cause another budget delay.

Legislative Democrats stood with Mr. Wolf throughout the months of the impasse, though when the General Assembly sent him the supplemental appropriations bill last week, 13 House Democrats joined the Republicans in voting yes. Mr. Costa and Mr. Dermody said that if Mr. Wolf had chosen to veto the appropriations bill, they believed Democrats would have stood with the governor to prevent an override vote from succeeding.

Author: Karen LangleyPublication: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette