By Hilary Russ
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Pennsylvania's $2 billion budget deficit is a "time bomb" that could cause "fiscal catastrophe the likes of which we have never seen" if it is not resolved, Governor Tom Wolf said in his budget address to lawmakers on Tuesday.
Wolf, a Democrat, and the Republican-led legislature have been locked in a political impasse since this time last year, when Wolf proposed his first budget that aimed to boost education funding and raise revenue in part through a new tax on natural gas extraction.
Now seven months after the start of the fiscal 2016 budget year, the state still has only a partial $23.4 billion emergency spending plan.
Wolf had been ready to sign a negotiated $30.8 billion budget agreement but it was scuttled in December. Wolf reminded lawmakers of that turn of events on Tuesday. In web streamed remarks, he urged them to send the agreement back to him.
"House Republican leaders just walked away," he said during his speech at the state capitol building in Harrisburg. Some booed in response.
"Yelling will not make it go away," he said. "We need to do what's right," he continued, to applause. He later told lawmakers to "find another job" if they could not reach a solution.
Unless the deficit is closed, property taxes for homeowners would skyrocket, he said. More than 23,000 teachers, guidance counselors and other school employees would be laid off. Class sizes would balloon by 30 percent, and special education and pre-kindergarten programs would be cut.
Funding would be slashed on services for senior citizens, the mentally ill, child care and domestic violence shelters, he said.
Wolf repeatedly noted criticism from Wall Street credit rating agencies, saying that Pennsylvania is "among the least creditworthy states in America" and that downgrades have led to higher borrowing rates that will eventually cost an extra $139 million a year.
Spreads on the state's long-term debt have widened since the start of last year, meaning that investors think the risk of holding the state's bonds has grown compared to top-rated U.S. municipal bonds.
(Reporting by Hilary Russ; Editing by David Gregorio)