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Pennsylvania governor Wolf's spending amid budget impasse baffles lawmakers

| Wednesday, March 2, 2016, 11:05 p.m.

HARRISBURG — The state budget dispute is puzzling enough, but what baffles Rep. Matt Gabler, R-DuBois, the most is Gov. Tom Wolf spending money that he cut from the budget.

“He uses the line-item veto, and then spends the money he vetoed,” Gabler said.

Welcome to the latest round of zaniness in the Harrisburg budget follies, starring Wolf, a liberal Democrat, sparring with a conservative Republican-run legislature.

After a six-month impasse and a broken-down framework agreement that failed to become law, the House and Senate sent Wolf a $30.3 billion budget in December. The governor cut $6 billion from the budget through his line-item veto.

Meanwhile, he's trying to get lawmakers to approve a 2016-17 budget to address a $2 billion deficit. He's seeking an income tax increase to pay for closing the deficit and for higher education spending.

Wolf, however, started to spend money on corrections as prisons ran out of money a few weeks ago. He cut about half of the $1.9 billion appropriation for state prisons. But he's now spending money not appropriated by the legislature, which some Republicans say is unconstitutional and sets a dangerous precedent.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre County, said it's about any governor — not just Wolf — “exceeding the statutory line item” in the state budget.

Senate Republicans obviously are not opposed to funding prisons, he said. But Corman's concern is it will lead to spending in other categories and devolve into “deficit spending” as is done in Washington, D.C., despite a constitutional requirement in Pennsylvania for a balanced budget.

“Corrections operations will continue to be funded, including expenditures in excess of the appropriated amount, because the operation of our correctional institutions is a critical function of the commonwealth and its continued operations are dictated by federal law,” Wolf's spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan said. “The administration has continued to fund operations throughout the impasse that impact the health, safety and protection of Pennsylvanians, or is required under federal law, state court decisions or the Pennsylvania Constitution.”

The Treasury Department recently received a nonbinding opinion from the Office of Attorney General saying the state constitutional provision against spending in excess of appropriations is trumped by federal law.

The Office of General Counsel, under the governor, said spending must continue for “food, clothing, educational services, inmate transportation, religious practice and medical care.”

“That's pretty broad,” said Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Altoona, who believes it's illegal.

The Department of Human Services has exhausted its appropriation for Medicaid payments to HMOs, a spokeswoman said, but payments continue to ensure the “health and safety of Pennsylvanians.” Wolf cut about half of that budget line, knocking out $1.9 billion.

On another front, Wolf enacted only $2.5 billion of $5.6 billion in basic education funding. He vetoed about $3 billion.

He did not veto the money because he thought Republicans wanted to spend too much. He did so “because he needs some type of leverage with the process. You want to hold onto some control for a broader deal,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

The concern among Wolf's critics is that prolonged budget disputes will hand him “unlimited spending authority,” said Nathan Benefield, a senior policy analyst at the Commonwealth Foundation.

Benefield said Wolf has been unable to get tax increases approved by the Legislature. But if he can spend what he wants, saying they are critical functions, will he effectively get the extra spending he contends the state needs?

“We follow the law, the constitution at both the state and federal levels and court case,” Sheridan said.

Inherently, it is an issue about the “proper exercise of constitutional power by both the governor and the Legislature,” said Kyle Kopko, a political science professor at Elizabethtown College.

“Members of the General Assembly have charged that Gov. Wolf has interfered with the assembly's constitutional authority to authorize appropriations,” Kopko said. “That authority is one of the most important powers invested in the state Legislature.”

House Democratic spokesman Bill Patton said, “The governor took necessary steps to deal with a (Republican-crafted) budget that was half a billion dollars out of balance. He's doing the job that people elected him to do.”

Wolf “must be forced to spend (only) what the Legislature has authorized in the budget. He cannot have it both ways,” said Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Elizabeth Township.

Sheridan says this is not a battle of Wolf's choosing.

“Having to continue funding something that does not have fully appropriated funding only exacerbates the problem in the future,” he said. “This is not a situation we want, but it's the situation we were dealt by Republican leaders.”

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

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