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2016-17 spending plan set to join Pa. budget mess; Wolf to seek $200M more for schools

| Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016, 11:00 p.m.

HARRISBURG — Less than a week before Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf proposes a new state spending plan, more partisan gridlock looms, and many Republican lawmakers remain firmly opposed to the higher taxes he seeks.

“I think they stay right on course,” said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College, who predicts neither side will back down.

The state budget remains unfinished. Wolf vetoed about $8 billion in items before Christmas, including $1 million for the Public Employee Retirement Commission. He told the agency Tuesday to close its doors. Established in 1981, it independently analyzed state and municipal pension legislation and funding levels.

Wolf announced he will propose a $200 million increase to basic education funding as part of his 2016-17 budget plan Feb. 9.

That 3.3 percent increase is in addition to a $377 million increase in a 2015-16 budget compromise agreement that had majority support until Republican House leaders failed to vote before leaving town prior to Christmas, the governor's office said.

Wolf vetoed $3 billion in education money from the December budget he signed, saying it wasn't enough money. He blamed lawmakers for failing to do their jobs after he vetoed an entire $30.2 billion budget June 30 because it didn't spend enough.

House Speaker Mike Turzai told the Tribune-Review that the state's leaders need to complete the 2015-16 budget before working on one for the next fiscal year.

“The governor has to begin governing in a responsible manner,” said Turzai, R-Marshall. “He has been looking to create crisis and chaos.”

Putting more money into basic education is “the path to a greater future and will help us lay a strong foundation for long-term economic growth,” Wolf said. “There is another path that will lead to higher property taxes, reduced services for seniors and another $1 billion in education cuts: doubling down on the deep cuts of the past.”

But Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman said Wolf is “doubling down on his failures to provide leadership on accomplishing a bipartisan budget agreement by asking for even more taxpayer money without addressing the changes needed for long-term relief for Pennsylvania schools.”

Corman, R-Centre County, said “money that could be used to instruct students is being eaten up by pension payments” because pension reform remains unresolved.

The hard feelings extend beyond the Capitol to the electorate.

A recent Franklin & Marshall Poll found 52 percent of voters blame the Legislature and 32 percent blame the governor for last year's budget impasse. Madonna, who conducted the poll, said there's no question Wolf used his “bully pulpit” to blame lawmakers after signing about 90 percent of the budget but vetoing the rest. Funding will run out for schools, prisons and critical access hospitals in a few months, lawmakers say.

“I'm getting sick and tired of this. I did my job,” Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York County, told “Face the State” on CBS TV 21 in Harrisburg last weekend. “I've had enough of Gov. Wolf and his games, quite frankly.”

Turzai said “any responsible governor would have signed this ($30.2 billion) budget in its entirety” in December. Instead, Wolf, “resorted to capricious line-item vetoes.”

Wolf spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan said Turzai and other House Republican leaders “failed to do their jobs by skipping town without passing a real budget. The Republican budget was $500 million out of balance and would have grown the commonwealth's already multibillion-dollar deficit to over $2.3 billion by the end of next year.”

Last March, Wolf in his first year in office called for increasing the income and sales tax rates, and expanding the sales tax base to cover day care, senior care and financial and legal services.

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

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