Governor Wolf's budget options limited

| Sunday, Jan. 31, 2016, 11:10 p.m.

HARRISBURG — Legislative staffers and the governor's office considered scheduling Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf to deliver his 2016-17 state budget on Tuesday, Groundhog Day, until the realization hit.

It was too reminiscent of the 1993 movie “Groundhog Day,” in which actor Bill Murray plays a TV weatherman in an unending day in which he relives events leading to coverage of the Punxsutawney ceremony of winter-forecasting “Phil,” the groundhog.

Wolf's 2015 budget proposal was still unfinished, and House Republicans in December rejected a so-called compromise that included higher taxes and more spending. After all, the reception among House Republicans for Wolf's second state budget promises to be much like his first, if he again proposes higher spending and taxes, as he has indicated, analysts say. Over and over and over, they say.

Stephen Miskin, House Republican spokesman, even called Murray to see if he would come to Pennsylvania to recognize Groundhog Day, before Wolf chose Feb. 9 as the day for his budget address.

Murray did not call back.

“I made my pitch (on an answering machine for Murray) to come here for Groundhog Day since it's Pennsylvania, the Senate president pro tem (Joe Scarnati) is from near there, and a former speaker (Sam Smith) is from there,” Miskin said.

The governor's budget address is often the first Tuesday in February, which had folks thinking Groundhog Day. But based on state law, it's to be delivered “no later than the first full week of February.” Wolf notified the Legislature that he would deliver it on Feb. 9, the Tuesday of the first full week, said his spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan, who denied the governor was avoiding the shadow of “Groundhog Day.”

Wolf last year proposed a state spending blueprint that would have boosted spending by 16 percent and called for hikes in the state income tax and sales tax.

While promising property tax reductions and historic increases in education spending, Wolf proposed raising the income tax from 3.07 to 3.7 percent and the sales tax from 6 to 6.5 percent while widening the base of items taxed. He also called for a tax on natural gas extraction.

Anthony May, former communications director for the late Democratic Gov. Robert Casey, has participated in and covered budgets as a reporter dating back to ex-Gov. Milton Shapp's first in 1971. He sees no easy answers or solutions with the state facing a $1.9 billion structural deficit.

“I'm not sure what's going to happen,” he said.

Like others, May agrees that prospects for higher taxes are dimmer in an election year for lawmakers.

“It's absolutely true because the guys running for re-election believe it,” he said. “It will also be impossible to get anyone to vote for reducing programs.”

Wolf in December passed a $23.4 billion line item-vetoed state spending plan with about $8 billion unresolved.

He will present lawmakers with two directions: one that involves cutting vital services and the other with raising revenues, Sheridan said. “It will be up to legislators to choose which path they go down,” he added.

Wolf said he would prefer to resolve the 2015-16 budget before introducing his next budget. But the strong possibility exists he'll be negotiating two at once. With the deficit unresolved, the 2016-17 budget “is a $2 billion train wreck,” he told Radio Pennsylvania's Brad Christman on “PA Matters” last week.

He'll renew his push for a natural gas tax and will continue to push for higher education spending, he said. Property tax reform is expected to be integral to his platform again, and that likely will involve either a sales or income tax boost to pay for it.

The situation calls for “tough decisions at the state level” to pay for services and to cover expenses, Wolf told Radio Pennsylvania.

“I would think he'd come back with the same approach, particularly after the House Republicans torpedoed his last agreement,” said Jack Treadway, former chairman of the political science department at Kutztown State University. “I don't know why he'd give in at this point.

There are hints of “Groundhog Day” or a déjà vu, Treadway said. “I don't know why it (the outcome) would suddenly change.”

“It doesn't seem like there's any impetus on anyone's part to get it done,” said Wes Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University.

“Attempts to raise taxes didn't succeed last year when he (Wolf) had political capital. At the end of the day, he should bring in a scaled-back vision” for state spending, Leckrone said.

Charlie Gerow, a Harrisburg-based GOP political consultant, said Wolf and his crew need to tone down the political rhetoric if they hope to get things done with a Republican legislature.

Gerow noted a “significant number of House Democrats” have not embraced Wolf's proposed tax increases. It's not just Republicans rejecting them, he said.

A potential reason for the gridlock: “There is not (one) mandate” held by either side, Treadway said. “There are a bunch of mandates” from voters. “And they are conflicting.”

Republicans say voters elected them to reject higher taxes and reduce state spending, Treadway said, and Wolf just as fervently believes he was elected statewide to boost education spending and raise taxes on natural gas extraction to pay for it.

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