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Pennsylvania

Eichelberger: Pa. Gov. Wolf spending 'potentially illegal'

| Monday, Feb. 8, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf

HARRISBURG — Members of a joint Senate panel on Monday grilled Treasury Department officials about why the state will release money to pay agency bills when the Legislature hasn't approved final spending numbers as required by the state constitution.

Several senators said doing so tips the “balance of power” toward Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who oversees agencies. It is “potentially illegal,” said Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Altoona.

It's just one of the complications the Legislature faces in dealing with two budgets at once. Wolf signed a partial 2015-16 budget in December but vetoed $6.3 billion in funding, said Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Shaler. That left the current budget unfinished.

Wolf on Tuesday introduces his budget for the next year based on an agreement for higher taxes and spending that died in December.

Wolf said his proposed budget “provides a clear path for a promising future for our state. It assumes the bipartisan agreement that proved elusive in December is ultimately enacted this year.”

That agreement could not pass the House because there was not sufficient support to raise taxes.

Republican House members and Senate GOP staff said they expect Wolf to propose $3 billion in higher taxes. That would cost the average family $1,200 more per year.

“Governor Wolf has been fighting to balance the budget, fix the deficit and invest in education at all levels. Pennsylvania needs a full, real budget — in 2015-16 and 2016-17 — that addresses these issues in order to move the commonwealth forward,” said his spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan. He said the state faces a $2 billion deficit.

The hearing of the Senate Appropriations and Finance committees Monday was “sobering,” said Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster County.

“We found out that for months and months, the governor and state treasurer have been spending billions of dollars without any authority by law on programs and services that they thought deserved to be funded,” Aument said.

But Sheridan said “Tea Party extremists are intent on continuing to waste time and taxpayer dollars on ridiculous stunts,” and instead should pass “a real budget.”

Eichelberger said he believes Wolf vetoed $6.3 billion in critical program areas to leverage support among lawmakers for the taxes and spending he wants.

Sheridan would not confirm or deny that figure.

“The governor is asking for even more taxpayer money without showing his ability to garner support for the changes needed for long-term relief for Pennsylvania,” said Jennifer Kocher, a spokeswoman for Senate Republicans.

Looking ahead, it's more clearly a constitutional issue, lawmakers said, because a state budget is in place as of December — albeit one that is $6 billion short.

Eichelberger said the issue is violating the constitution as the Legislature and governor move down a path without sufficient funds signed into law this year.

Lawmakers said they weren't accusing Treasury of wrongdoing. Treasurer Timothy Reese said in a prepared statement that the agency has “tried to fulfill its constitutional duties and responsibilities by relying on law and precedent.”

Chief Counsel Christopher Craig said Treasury hasn't been asked by Wolf to pay bills for spending he vetoed in December, but such discussions are under way with the administration.

“We'll cross the Rubicon soon,” Craig said.

The Treasury Department is in “unchartered water” since the governor can request that bills be paid to protect public health and safety, agency officials said. Depending on the appropriation, Treasury just can't say no, said Craig.

“Treasury isn't law school — Treasury is in the real world with consequences,” said Craig, noting anticipated requests for education and prisons. They are among the spending categories Wolf partially vetoed.

Lawmakers said Treasury's decisions to spend money at agency requests are subjective.

“This is the scariest I've ever seen it,” said Rep. Seth Grove, R-York County, “where there appears to be complete control by the chief executive and there's no transparency.”

Said Rep. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson County: “We have a constitutional crisis on our hands. There is no way for a governor to do this on his own.”

Sheridan said the administration kept operations going for critical functions and those required by law during last year's budget impasse.

“These same lawmakers, many of whom go to great lengths to keep the public from seeing how they spend money and conduct the people's business, are simply wrong,” Sheridan said.

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

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