Republican House budget panel chairman accuses Wolf of 'creating' budget crisis

Brad Bumsted
| Thursday, March 10, 2016, 11:10 p.m.

HARRISBURG — A Republican House budget panel chairman accused Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf on Thursday of “creating a crisis” with his state budget proposals rather than seeking compromise.

Wolf in June became the first governor since the 1950s to veto the entire budget when he could have nixed portions of it, said Rep. Bill Adolph, R-Delaware County, who heads the House Appropriations Committee.

Adolph blamed Wolf for using his line-item veto to cut $6 billion from education, state prisons and human services instead of working with the House on a compromise members offered in December that left just $500 million in dispute.

Two months later, Adolph said, the education department sent instructions to school districts about how to close schools, which Republicans said was a tactic to gain support for spending increases.

“That's not trying to compromise; it's creating a crisis,” Adolph said. “If you want to settle this, you don't send out a booklet on how to close a school.”

Wolf's budget secretary, Randy Albright, went before the panel to defend his boss.

“What we're interested in more than anything else is compromise,” said Albright, who testified at the final budget hearing in the House on the 2016-17 state budget and the incomplete 2015-16 state budget.

Wolf last month proposed a $32.7 billion state budget that seeks to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more on public education.

He has proposed raising the state income tax from 3.07 percent to 3.4 percent. It would be retroactive to Jan. 1. The sales tax base would be expanded, and cigarette taxes would be boosted by $1 per pack.

“The people of Pennsylvania cannot afford those kinds of taxes,” Adolph said.

Referring to the booklet on closing schools, Republicans controlling the committee and the House said Wolf's tactics were intended to leverage support for higher spending and taxes.

However, a Department of Education spokeswoman said the document “was developed by (the department) by a team of experts and stakeholders after the department received inquiries for assistance from school districts around the commonwealth.”

New, recurring state revenue is needed to close a $2 billion structural deficit by July 2017, Albright said. Without it, the state's cost of borrowing will go up, education will face $1 billion in cuts, state-related universities such as the University of Pittsburgh won't receive state funding and “human service providers will bear the brunt of the cost.”

Failure to act by the Republican-controlled Legislature will result in “hidden tax increases,” forcing higher property taxes, Wolf has said.

Standard & Poor's warned last month that Pennsylvania has 90 days to fix its fiscal situation or its credit rating will likely be downgraded, Albright said. If that occurs, taxpayers would have to pay millions of dollars more when the state borrows money.

Rep. Seth Grove, R-York County, raised questions during the panel session about the $150 million in savings touted by the Wolf administration as part of an effort to develop efficiencies and cut costs in state government. The savings were not noted in the administration's budget data, Grove said.

A Department of General Services official told the committee that the savings had been spent, Grove said.

“Why not put the data in there? Why not account for it?” he asked Albright.

Albright said the savings was built into appropriation amounts across the board rather than for a single agency.

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

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