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Senate sends $30.3B budget to Wolf as record-setting impasse looms

| Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2015, 10:52 a.m.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg. (Trib photo)

HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf has 10 days to sign a $30.3 billion House-passed budget the Senate sent to him Wednesday or the measure becomes law without his signature.

The Senate voted 33-17 to send the bill to the governor in the 176th day of a budget impasse, putting the onus on Wolf as Pennsylvania was about to set a record Thursday for the longest budget stalemate in at least 40 years.

The budget would increase spending by 3.7 percent but not raise state taxes.

Wolf, a Democrat, did not say whether he would sign or veto the bill.

He expressed disappointment and blasted House Republicans for scuttling a deal he had cut with both Senate caucuses and House Democrats for a $30.8 billion budget that would raise taxes but boost funding for public schools by $350 million, reform public pensions and make liquor system changes. It would have increased spending 6 percent.

“A historic compromise budget that included the largest increase in education funding in history, reforms in public pensions and a reduction in the deficit was within reach,” Wolf said. “It seems that the Republican Legislature is intent on continuing the Harrisburg status quo and getting out of town to go on vacation, instead of continuing the hard work to move Pennsylvania forward.”

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre County, said advancing the House plan was “the only way to get a budget to the governor before Christmas, so we can get money out to our schools and human service agencies.”

House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Marshall, called it a “responsible budget that lives within our means while still amply providing for core state budget priorities.”

Wolf said he and his allies would continue to fight for more funding.

Some school districts have told legislators they'll run out of money in January.

“Here's the bottom line,” said Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery County. “It's embarrassing to be standing here Dec. 23 without a (budget) on the table the governor can sign. It's hard to go home and stare people in the face and say it's just not done.”

A budget was due by law July 1. Since then, lawmakers have disagreed primarily over whether to raise taxes.

Republicans in the House revolted against the agreement that Wolf reached with both Senate caucuses and House Democrats two weeks ago. House members on Wednesday were released on six-hour call.

“The House Republican Caucus is scuttling the whole thing,” said Sen. Vincent Hughes of Philadelphia, ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. “This is not fair. This is not right. ... They need to get their legislative behinds back to Harrisburg.”

The agreement favored by Wolf hit a wall earlier Wednesday when lawmakers could not agree on pension reform and how to raise new revenue.

House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana County, told reporters the House “cannot pass a budget without a tax bill” to pay for it.

After meeting with Senate GOP leaders, Reed said Senate Republicans, House Democrats and the governor could not agree on how to pay for the spending plan.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, said after a meeting with House GOP leaders that there didn't appear to be sufficient support for the bill to reform the pension system — and without it, the Senate won't agree to tax increases.

All House Democrats voted against a pension plan that the House crushed last week.

In 1970, the budget took 248 days and two governors — Gov. Raymond Shafer and Gov. Milton Shapp — to pass; it contained the state's first income tax.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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