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Pennsylvania Gov. Wolf relents after 9-month budget impasse

| Wednesday, March 23, 2016, 1:24 p.m.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf

HARRISBURG — In an about-face from his veto threat, Gov. Tom Wolf on Wednesday let a supplemental budget bill become law without his signature, bringing an end to a nearly nine-month impasse that threatened to close schools.

Wolf is effectively approving a $6 billion bill that completes a $30 billion budget for 2015-16 approved by lawmakers in December. It was due, by law, last July 1. About half of the new funding is for Pennsylvania school districts.

“School districts will no longer be on the brink of financial disaster,” the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials said in a statement.

The final budget won't contain Wolf's signature because he says the funding is insufficient and the “math just doesn't work.” The end result is no different than a signature: the bill becomes law.

The first-term Democratic governor faced a potential veto override in the GOP-controlled legislature if he again vetoed funding that included basic education money. Wolf vetoed the funding in December to retain leverage in the budget dispute.

“This is a responsible budget that holds the line on spending and taxes,” said House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Marshall. “We put responsible budgets on his desk in June, September, December and March.”

“We're very happy the governor let the impasse come to an end,” said House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana County.

Lawmakers in Wolf's party would have needed to cross party lines for a veto override. It's not clear that would have happened, but Democratic lawmakers had been urging Wolf to veto line items only rather than use a full veto, said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills.

Wolf “was forced to allow the spending plan to become law because Democratic senators and House members were going to vote with Republicans to override his veto of the spending plan,” said Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York County.

House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, said House Democrats were holding firm behind the governor.

Asked whether he reversed himself because of a potential override, Wolf said he did not.

“I'm doing what I think is the right thing for Pennsylvania,” he said.

Wolf became the first governor since the late Democratic Gov. Milton Shapp in 1976 to let a bill become law without his signature.

“I can't in good conscience sign this bill,” Wolf said at a news conference.

Wolf said there's not enough revenue to support the budget and it will add to a looming $2 billion deficit.

Turzai said the opposite: By spending $750 million less than Wolf wanted in December, “it puts us on better footing for 2016-17.”

Wolf said he was allowing separate legislation to fund state-related universities — including the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State — to become law without his signature as well.

The governor said he would veto a fiscal code bill, a companion bill to the budget. Legislative leaders said they have not had a chance to analyze the impact of that veto of legislation that sets funding formulas.

But passage of the state's 2015-16 budget removes an obstacle toward dealing with the budget for the next fiscal year, Dermody said.

The key obstacle of the impasse is opposition by Republicans, especially conservative GOP House members, to any tax increases. Wolf sought higher spending in many areas and contended a tax increase was needed.

“Senate Republican Leaders and Gov. Wolf have very different philosophies of how to govern,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County. “While the governor looks at raising taxes as the first course of action to close the budget deficit, we look at reforms as a first course of action. Before asking for more of our constituents' hard-earned dollars, we should be sure that government is doing all that we can to operate efficiently.”

Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, minority chairman of the appropriations committee, said Republicans “chose not to compromise.”

Wolf in February proposed a $32.7 billion state budget for 2016-17 that seeks to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more on public education and relies on a personal income tax increase to balance the budget and close the deficit.

“What are (Republicans) going to do differently this time?” Hughes asked.

Brad Bumsted is the Tribune-Review's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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