Lawmakers eye options amid Pennsylvania budget deal's defeat

AP News
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Posted: Dec 20, 2015 9:27 PM

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Top Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania met in the quiet and dark Capitol on Sunday night as they sorted through the wreckage of a deal with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf to end Pennsylvania's nearly six-month budget stalemate that is days from shattering the state's modern-day record.

House Republican majority leaders announced a plan for a Tuesday vote on a short-term emergency spending bill, but could give no details about the duration or dollar amount. They said little after they left a meeting with leaders of the Senate's Republican majority.

"We're negotiating," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Adolph, R-Delaware. "We'll be here awhile."

The meeting came a day after the huge House Republican majority swatted away yet another facet of six-week-old budget deal — legislation to restructure benefits in the state's two mammoth, debt-ridden public pension systems.

Along with Illinois, Pennsylvania is one of just two states still fighting over a budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.

Pennsylvania, an anomaly among states for its late budgets and long stalemates, is close to breaking its modern-day record — Wednesday, Dec. 23 — for a budget fight, set in 2003 by another first-year Democratic governor, Ed Rendell, and a Republican-controlled Legislature.

Pressure is mounting.

With billions in state aid held up, cash-strapped school districts are getting slapped with potentially crippling credit downgrades, social service agencies are laying off workers and state-subsidized prekindergarten programs are closing to hundreds of children in low-income families. Domestic violence shelters are filled to capacity and homecare services for the elderly in many counties are unable to take new enrollees.

The state's largest school system — Philadelphia — says it will close Jan. 29 without state aid. Several school districts have raised the idea of staying closed after the winter break to avoid having to borrow more money.

In November, Wolf and House and Senate leaders agreed to a budget deal that revolved around a 6 percent spending increase and a $1-billion-plus tax increase. Wolf had sought the money to reverse post-recession cuts to public schools and human services and to narrow a long-term budget deficit.

But House Republicans revolted. On Saturday, conservatives helped defeat pension legislation that Senate Republican leaders had tied to their support for the tax and spending package.

Wolf and Senate Republican majority leaders said they oppose a short-term spending plan.

On Sunday, they offered no alternative or solution to opposition by the House Republicans. Senate Republicans said they want a no-tax, bare-bones budget if it is not accompanied by the pension legislation.

Wolf stayed out of sight Sunday and his office would not say whether he would veto a short-term emergency spending bill.

"We need a full-year budget and the governor is still going to stand strong on his commitment to funding our schools and fixing our deficit and balancing our budget," press secretary Jeff Sheridan said. "It's time for everybody to get back to work and fix this now."

In June, conservatives had backed a previous Senate bill to restructure pension benefits, but Wolf vetoed it.

With a new negotiated version in the House, anti-tax groups lobbied conservatives to vote against the pension legislation as a proxy defeat of the wider spending and tax plan. Along with opposition from House Democrats and moderate Republicans, it went down, 149-52.

Wolf's office said Friday it had corralled enough support from Democrats and moderate Republicans to pass the tax legislation, over the opposition of House Republican leaders. House GOP leaders, however, put the pension legislation up for a vote, and then went back on their commitment to run the tax bill Saturday.