Republican leaders invite vote on Pennsylvania Gov. Wolf's tax plan
HARRISBURG — Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has a high-stakes showdown with Republicans next week on whether House members of both parties are willing to vote for higher taxes.
House and Senate Republican leaders called the bluff of House Democrats who said they're close to having 84 committed votes in their caucus and might be able to garner 18 Republicans for a 102-vote majority.
But Rep. Nick Kotik of Coraopolis, an outspoken “blue dog Democrat,” said getting to that number is “a steep climb.”
“Politically, (the tax vote) is a real death knell for younger members,” Kotik said. “You're asking new guys to cast votes that may end their careers.”
The GOP leaders scheduled a House vote for Wednesday — on what will be the 98th day of the budget impasse — to consider Wolf's tax plan.
The plan, according to a Sept. 11 negotiating session, would boost the personal income tax from 3.07 percent to 3.49 percent; expand the base of the 6 percent sales tax to book and music downloads, amusements and recreation, cable TV, dry cleaning and other personal services; raise cigarette taxes by $1 per pack; and enact a tax on natural gas drilling.
If it wins approval, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre County, said Wolf will get the spending plan he wants and the impasse will end.
Wolf's plan would raise $1.8 billion in 2015-16 and $3.2 billion in 2016-17, according to a summary released by Senate Republicans. GOP leaders said Wolf's latest plans don't include a property tax cut that he proposed in March and that it will not be part of the vote. next week.
“This is a serious situation,” said House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont. “We're talking to members. We're going to do the best we can. It's an important vote for every member, Democrat and Republican.”
School districts are beginning to run out of money, and lawmakers say human service providers are calling their offices for help.
Corman and House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana County, said they won't try to influence members, and Wolf is free to call any Republicans he wants to lobby. Wolf told KQV Radio in Pittsburgh that he wants to talk to rank-and-file members.
“I would be more than willing to sit down with the governor,” said Rep. Stephen Bloom, R-Cumberland County. “I would tell him that the taxpayers I represent cannot withstand the massive tax hikes he is proposing, especially the struggling small-business people who would bear the heaviest burden of his higher personal income, sales and energy taxes.”
Rep. Eli Evankovich, R-Murrysville, said he'd like to meet with Wolf with no staff present. Unlike the “behind-closed-doors” negotiations that have taken place, Evankovich requests the discussion be open to news media and perhaps to the public.
“Gov. Wolf and I are both businessmen who happen to be trapped in this world of government,” said Evankovich, a former U.S. Steel financial analyst, farmer and businessman. “We can, hopefully, make progress by sitting down together in front of those that we work for to give the governor a chance to sell the benefits of his budget and tax proposals to me and the people of my district.”
Wolf on Tuesday vetoed a four-month, $11 billion stopgap budget to provide money for schools and human service providers, among others.
“It's October,” said Corman. “We're at a fork in the road. We passed an emergency funding bill, and the governor vetoed it.”
Reed told members in a memo Friday that House Democrats claimed they had nearly 84 caucus members on board for a personal income tax hike. Kotik said many Western Pennsylvania Democrats are reluctant to support Wolf's plan.
Rep. Kate Klunk, R-York County, said materials that leaders provided her include no property tax cuts, and “that's going to be a non-starter in my district.” Wolf's general letter to members, however, called for property tax relief, she said.
“Despite how the administration might characterize it, Wolf did not seek any meeting,” said Rep. John Maher, R-Upper St. Clair. “I would, of course, meet with him if he did.”
Klunk agreed her letter didn't include an invitation, which she would honor because she “respects the office.”
“If we were to meet about the budget, I would first observe that, in order to reach any agreement with others, Gov. Wolf must first learn to agree with himself,” Maher said. “Wolf has now twice vetoed all of the budget line amounts that were exactly what he requested. When Wolf disagrees with his own requests, there seems little hope that he has the capacity to agree with others.”
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.