Bud­get bat­tle turns ugly

The Mercury (Pottstown, PA) - - FRONT PAGE - By Marc Levy

HARRISBURG » The feel-good bi­par­ti­san spirit that Demo­cratic Gov. Tom Wolf tried to in­still last year in Penn­syl­va­nia’s Capi­tol is gone, stomped to bits in an in­creas­ingly ugly bud­get stale­mate.

Now, the Capi­tol seems gripped by a feud that is per­haps less par­ti­san than it is re­gional and per­sonal.

To a sig­nif­i­cant de­gree, that feud is be­tween the huge Repub­li­can ma­jori­ties that run the House and the Se­nate. It is also in­side of those ma­jori­ties, pit­ting south­east­ern Penn­syl­va­nia mod­er­ates against anti-tax con­ser­va­tives who hail from much of the rest of the state.

“There’s so many fac­tions, just so many fac­tions,” said Sen. Don White, R-In­di­ana. “Ev­ery-

body from the south­east. It’s geo­graph­i­cal. It’s about com­mit­ments made. It’s a real mess and I’ve never seen any­thing like it in my 17 years.”

Nearly three months into the fis­cal year, law­mak­ers are grap­pling with how to re­solve state gov­ern­ment’s largest cash short­fall since the re­ces­sion, now a pro­jected $2.2 bil­lion gap in a $32 bil­lion bud­get.

The fin­ger-point­ing was on stark dis­play late Wed­nes­day night, right af­ter House Repub­li­can lead­ers de­fied weeks of urg­ing by Wolf and Se­nate lead­ers to agree to a plan that re­lied, in part, on a $500 mil­lion-plus tax pack­age.

An el­e­ment of that pack­age in­volved im­pos­ing a new tax on Mar­cel­lus Shale nat­u­ral gas pro­duc­tion, a key aim of south­east­ern Penn­syl­va­nia Repub­li­cans, Wolf and Democrats that Repub­li­cans from north­ern and west­ern Penn­syl­va­nia’s gas fields have blocked for years, partly out of fear for how it would cut into their re­gion’s econ­omy.

In­stead, the House GOP mus­cled through a nonew-taxes plan that dif­fers in one key way: It would tap roughly $600 mil­lion from off-bud­get ac­counts, in­clud­ing for public tran­sit sys­tems and en­vi­ron­men­tal im­prove­ment projects fa­vored by Democrats and mod­er­ate sub­ur­ban Repub­li­cans. Thir­teen Repub­li­cans from south­east­ern Penn­syl­va­nia voted with ev­ery Demo­crat against it.

Min­utes af­ter the vote, House GOP lead­ers lashed out.

Ma­jor­ity Leader Dave Reed, R-In­di­ana, sug­gested to re­porters that Wolf has been an ab­sen­tee gov­er­nor dur­ing bud­get ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee Chair­man Stan Say­lor, R-York, ac­cused the Wolf ad­min­is­tra­tion of ly­ing to law­mak­ers about sur­plus cash sit­ting in off-bud­get ac­counts and threat­en­ing law­mak­ers with stop­ping projects.

House Speaker Mike Turzai — who has said he was se­ri­ously con­sid­er­ing run­ning for the GOP nom­i­na­tion to chal­lenge Wolf’s re-elec­tion bid in next year’s elec­tion — ac­cused Wolf of over­spend­ing the state into the deficit and in­ten­tion­ally in­flat­ing rev­enue pro­jec­tions last year “so that he could in­crease spend­ing.”

Then Turzai, R-Al­legheny, turned on Se­nate Repub­li­cans. They had “ceded their su­per­ma­jor­ity to the gov­er­nor and to the Democrats” by al­low­ing the tax pack­age to pass the cham­ber without ap­proval from the ma­jor­ity of its GOP mem­bers, he said. The House, Turzai sug­gested, would never al­low a floor vote on leg­is­la­tion that was not sup­ported by a ma­jor­ity of Repub­li­cans.

Se­nate Repub­li­cans de­clined to re­spond, but Wolf’s of­fice did.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion main­tained that there are no sur­pluses sit­ting in off­bud­get ac­counts, and that raid­ing in the ac­counts will cut off fund­ing for projects. The ad­min­is­tra­tion also pointed out that House GOP lead­ers agreed to a con­sen­sus rev­enue es­ti­mate last year that hewed closely to a sep­a­rate es­ti­mate by the Leg­is­la­ture’s own In­de­pen­dent Fis­cal Of­fice.

In any case, House GOP lead­ers be­gan try­ing to pin blame for the deficit on Wolf in July, when frus­tra­tion set in over how to fully fund the nearly $32 bil­lion bud­get bill that House Repub­li­cans had backed over­whelm­ingly in a June 30 vote.

The Se­nate will re­turn to ses­sion Mon­day, as Wolf de­lays pay­ments to man­age through a cash crunch.

How the stale­mate can end is un­clear.

“I have no idea where it’s go­ing,” said Rep. John Tay­lor, R-Philadel­phia. “I don’t think any­body else does ei­ther.”

The out­come has im­pli­ca­tions for ev­ery­thing from the gov­er­nor’s race to the in­ter­est rate Penn­syl­va­nia pays on the bil­lions it bor­rows ev­ery year to the bud­gets of public schools, county-run so­cial ser­vices, hos­pi­tals and agen­cies serv­ing the dis­abled.

Many law­mak­ers ex­pect the Se­nate will seek sig­nif­i­cant changes to the House plan. A num­ber of south­east­ern Penn­syl­va­nia Repub­li­cans say a Mar­cel­lus Shale tax will re-emerge as a nec­es­sary part of a fi­nal bud­get agree­ment.

Reed and Turzai don’t like that, Tay­lor said, “but I think they un­der­stand that.”

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