Partial state budget raises odds of work on 2 plans at once

Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015, signed a $23.4 billion, line-item-vetoed spending plan that allows the state to begin pumping money to cash-strapped school districts and human service agencies.
Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015, signed a $23.4 billion, line-item-vetoed spending plan that allows the state to begin pumping money to cash-strapped school districts and human service agencies.
Photo by AP
Brad Bumsted
| Monday, Jan. 4, 2016, 11:18 p.m.

HARRISBURG — Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf faces the prospect in February of introducing his budget plan for next year with this year's budget still unresolved, analysts said Monday.

After a six-month standoff with the Republican-controlled Legislature, Wolf last week signed a partial $23.4 billion 2015-16 budget with differences remaining over about $8 billion for state prisons, basic education and state-related universities, including Penn State University and the University of Pittsburgh. There's no agreement on new revenue he sought for public schools.

“It seems now there's less leverage to get a compromise on this, particularly with some of the pressure off,” said J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University in Chester.

With the vast majority of the budget in place, “it does remove many of the bargaining chips to get the Legislature to act,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

If no action is taken, there's enough funding in place to last for perhaps six months for some programs, said House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont. Wolf's action released funding to schools, some of which faced imminent closure, and human service providers that had not received money since June 30. Republican and Democratic analysts were trying to gauge the overall impact of the partial budget.

It's rare for Pennsylvania governors to work effectively on two budgets simultaneously.

The late Democratic Gov. Milton Shapp did so in 1971 to pass an income tax, and to a limited extent, so did former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell in 2003 when he used a line-item veto to withhold education funding from the budget to win a 10 percent income tax increase.

The state-related universities such as Penn State and Pitt have clout to lobby for funding, but they are not nearly as dependent on state money as state-owned universities like Slippery Rock, Borick said. Wolf released the bulk of funding for state-owned universities.

As the budget battle continues into the new year, one thing has not changed: “Both sides are thinking the other side is going to give,” said Phil Harold, a political science professor at Robert Morris University in Moon.

Both Wolf and Republican lawmakers believe they have a mandate, said Kyle Kopko, a political science professor at Elizabethtown College.

“(Wolf) poured so much of his own money into the (2014) race to become governor, he seems to feel insulated from the pressure,” Kopko said.

Wolf, a York County businessman, spent about $10 million of his money to get elected.

What's playing out at the Capitol “is a miniature of the budget battles in Washington, D.C.,” said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. “The issues aren't that different: taxes, spending and government control.”

Republicans in the House and Senate could not agree on pension and liquor system reforms, and Wolf could not garner support for higher sales and income taxes in the GOP-controlled House. In the end, Republican lawmakers agreed on the less costly budget.

Campaign-style TV ads running in Pennsylvania and paid for by America Works, affiliated with the Democratic Governors Association, open with elephants fighting and lay blame for the budget mess on House Republicans. The ads cost about $500,000.

“The Republican House of Representatives has insisted on a budget that fails to fund education and balloons the deficit,” the TV ad says. “Call your legislator. Tell them to pass a budget that's right for Pennsylvania.”

Stephen Miskin, a spokesman for House Republicans, said the ad campaign is “further proof” that the battle has not been “about the kids but rather blatant partisan politics.”

Wolf's spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan said, “Republican leaders need to call the Legislature back into session now to complete the work they left unfinished before leaving for holiday vacation.”

Brad Bumsted is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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