on budget stalemate
By Duane Good, EDITOR
Saturday, Aug. 1 will mark one month without a budget
in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Meetings began earlier this month in an effort to
resolve the impasse that appears to pit Gov. Tom Wolf and his
supporters on one side, and Republican legislative leaders and their
supporters on the other.
As of the Sentinel’s July 27 press time, no
resolution to the stalemate had been announced publicly.
Pennsylvania’s Constitution requires passage of each new fiscal
year’s budget by June 30.
As per a court decision, all state employees –
including the governor, state Legislature and their staffs – are
continuing to be paid, and state services deemed essential to public
health, welfare and safety remain in operation as well.
However, some entities that derive their operating
budgets in part from state funding – such as school districts and
county-level human service programs – are in danger of not receiving
those funds in a timely fashion.
The story so far. Here is a recap of events
leading up to the current (as of July 27) impasse, as well as the
position taken by Sentinel-area state legislators on the issue.
• Wolf announced his 2015-16 Fiscal Year Budget
proposal in March. The $33.8 billion plan called for $4.7 billion in
additional state spending, which included an additional $400 million
in basic education funding and $100 million more in special
• In addition, it proposed modernization – rather
than privatization – of the state liquor store system to generate
extra money; and a management re-shuffling of the state pension
system, as well as refinancing some of the current pension
liability, as opposed to more extensive reforms advocated by the
• Wolf also called for increases in both sales and
personal taxes, as well as a 7.5 percent natural gas severance tax.
• The governor defended the tax and spending hikes
as necessary to repair what he called a ‘‘structural budget
deficit’’ caused by spending cuts during the previous
administration, and to provide multi-billion dollar school property
• The proposal drew opposition from all Sentinel-area
GOP legislators – state Reps. Sue Helm, Lynda Schlegel-Culver, Mike
Tobash and Kurt Masser; and state Sens. John Gordner and David
Argall – and support from the sole Democrat – State Sen. Rob Teplitz.
• In early June, the state House – including all of
the Sentinel-area members – unanimously rejected an amendment to
House Bill 283 that would have authorized the tax increases
requested in Wolf’s proposal. The rejection meant the measure did
not advance to the Senate.
• In late June, both the House and Senate passed a
bill (Senate Bill 1) that would overhaul the existing pension
funding system for both current and future state employees and
public educators. Wolf vetoed the bill.
• Also in late June, both the House and Senate passed
a bill (House Bill 1192) that reportedly retains or increases
almost two-third of the line-item appropriations the governor
requested in his March proposal. Wolf vetoed the entire bill, saying
it failed to address ‘‘the core issues’’ of school funding, property
tax relief and the ‘‘structural’’ budget deficit.
According to voting breakdowns available online, all
but one Sentinel-area legislator voted for the pension reform and
state budget bills; Teplitz voted against both bills.
Willing to compromise – to a certain point.
What needs to happen for Pennsylvania’s 2015-16 General Fund Budget
to finally be put into place?
The Sentinel posed that question to state Reps. Sue
Helm and Mike Tobash, both of whom supported the GOP-sponsored
budget proposal vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf; and state Sen. Rob Teplitz,
who stood by Wolf’s veto.
Sue Helm. ‘‘We obviously want to move forward, and we
are willing to talk, but we are sticking to our guns about not
raising taxes,’’ said the 104th District House member. ‘‘In all of
our (budget) discussions, there were no suggestions to raise
Helm said it’s her understanding that legislators on
both sides of the aisle are on notice that a special session on the
budget could be called at anytime, and that preparations for such
an occurrence are in progress.
According to Helm, a possible sticking point in any
future negotiations is the proposed natural gas severance tax as a
viable revenue source to help with school funding. She said she sees
demand for natural gas falling in Pennsylvania and steps need to be
taken to increase demand if the state expects to get the money it
While the GOP is willing to meet and discuss with
Wolf, the governor has to be willing to be part of the discussion
and listen to any concerns, Helm said. She said she remains puzzled
by the governor’s rejection of a budget that had so many line-item
expenditures he initially supported.
‘‘That hasn’t happened in a while,’’ Helm said.
Rob Teplitz. The state senator for the 15th District
said he believed the GOP majority ‘‘needs to move past public
theater and engage in serious negotiating (on the budget).’’
‘‘It was clear (Republicans) wanted to push through a
budget ... they passed a budget they knew he would veto; it was
disingenuous of them to do that, and I’m glad he vetoed it,’’
Teplitz said last week.
Wolf is “willing to compromise’’ in certain areas but
shouldn’t budge on his core goals, Teplitz said.
‘‘We don’t believe he should give up on his efforts
in areas like filling the structural deficits (in the budget) and
enacting the severance tax. We hope the governor stays firm on his
principals,’’ Teplitz said.
Teplitz continues to support Wolf’s position on
modernizing the state liquor control system, as well as his ideas
for getting pension funding under control.
The senator’s office confirmed that he has not
accepted any pay since the start of the 2015-16 fiscal year July 1,
and that he has introduced legislation that would suspend pay for
the governor, lieutenant governor and all members of the House and
Senate if a budget is not enacted by the start of each fiscal year.
The legislation was introduced Feb. 15 and remained
in committee as of July 27, according to Sentinel research.
Mike Tobash. The 125th District representative said a
legislative override of Wolf’s veto has been discussed; a two-thirds
majority in both the House and Senate would be required.
“It would put us in a position where at least some
things, like social services, could be funded,’’ he said last week.
“A rape crisis center in our district contacted me
and said they would feel the pain soon if a budget wasn’t passed.
That’s part of our effort to override – so hopefully things people
need won’t come to a screeching halt,’’ he said.
As it now stands, school districts expecting state
aid may not get it until late September, about a month after it’s
scheduled, he said.
Tobash is hopeful that meetings between GOP leaders
and the Governor’s Office will continue, and that all parties will
review the budget line-by-line and compromise where needed.
‘‘We need to be discussing line-by-line what we can
sustain; we need to be doing what many families have had to do with
their own budgets,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s not a long-term solution to
For his part, Tobash said that any new spending plan
must resolve the state’s rising pension debt (he said the debt has
increased by $1.8 billion since 2010 and now tops $50 billion);
needs to consider whether the higher natural gas severance tax is
sustainable long-term; and must ensure equitable state funding for
all school districts, not just those in urban areas.
‘‘It’s very difficult for me to support sending more
(state aid) to school districts that are failing academically, and
not sending it to Upper Dauphin, Williams Valley and Tri-Valley,’’
GOP sends letter. Wolf’s budget veto was denounced in
a July 6 letter signed by Gordner – the current Senate Majority Whip
– and other GOP House and Senate leaders.
‘‘Your indiscriminate veto ... puts politics above
governing,’’ the letter said, noting that about two-thirds of the
budget line items vetoes ‘‘provided the same or more state support
than what you called for in your initial budget proposal.’’
In the letter, the leadership told Wolf that the GOP
proposal ‘‘committed a record 10.6 billion to (public schools), the
most in Commonwealth history’’ and increased Basic Education Fund by
$100 million; Special Education by $20 million; Pre-K Counts by $25
million; and Head Start by $5 million. It also streamlined the
process for reimbursing school districts for building project
The proposal called for $30.18 billion in
expenditures – a 3.6 percent of $1 billion increase over last years
and, in addition to the public school package, called for more more
for colleges; made key investments in agriculture; increased funding
for critical health line items; and allocated more funds to hire 350
new state troopers, the leadership said.
‘‘We will continue to work with you to come to an
agreement on a General Fund Budget ... that meets Pennsylvania’s
needs while being responsible to the taxpayer,’’ the leaders said.
Additional responses. Argall, also in a statement,
after the budget was vetoed, said SB 1 would have saved taxpayers
more than $10 billion while preserving the pension system for both
current and future employees.
‘‘Like our counterparts in the private sector, our
state government needs to make adjustments in our pension systems,’’
he said. ‘‘If we do not adjust, we can look to Detroit’s bankruptcy
to see what happens when you constantly maintain the status quo. We
should learn from (Detroit’s) example: that’s bad news for both
public employees and the taxpayer.
Both Culver and Masser joined their names to a
statement urging their constituents to call Wolf’s office directly,
saying that he was responsible for the stalemate by refusing to
endorse a budget that they said ‘‘meets the needs of this
Commonwealth while being respectful of taxpayers, working and
‘‘In the 2014-15 fiscal year, because the private
sector created jobs, our state revenue collections were $400 million
greater than expected,’’ according to the statement, which was
endorsed by seven legislators. ‘‘This growth, provided by an
expanding economy, coupled with the use of cash balances in state
agencies, enabled the Legislature to produce a balanced budget
without raising taxes.’’
In addition, Masser issued a statement saying that
Wolf’s severance tax will not generate as much revenue as was
‘‘Of his proposed $4.7 billion tax increase in
2015-16 (his taxes actually double for Pennsylvanians when fully
implemented), just three cents of each dollar in new taxes would
come from natural gas drillers (which would most likely result in
higher home heating and electric bills for Pennsylvanians due to the
tax being passed on),’’ Masser stated.
‘‘The governor claims enacting a severance tax is the
only way to fairly fund our schools, but under his proposal, most of
the tax revenue goes elsewhere, including funding to replace current
impact fee distributions; additional state bureaucrats; “economic
development” grants and making annual debt payments for massive
borrowing to fund “alternative” energy competitors, including solar
and wind energy (it would be like taxing Subway to fund
McDonald’s),’’ he noted.
The proposed sales tax increase would have
encompassed several items currently not taxed in Pennsylvania,
Commissioners issue statement. The County
Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania issued a statement July 24
called on state government to resolve its budget impasse as soon as
‘‘County officials are bracing for the impact of
delayed state payments to critical programs, including core human
services such as mental health and intellectual disability services,
children and youth agencies and drug and alcohol programs.
The statement included remarks by Dauphin County
Commissioner George Hartwick III, who also chairs the association’s
Human Services Committee.
Hartwick also said counties are calling for a
three-year restoration of human-service related line items whose
allocations were reduced by 10 percent in the 2012-13 fiscal year.
‘‘With caseloads consistently increasing, the
Commonwealth must restore funding to these vital programs to bring
them in line with historic funding levels,’’ Hartwick said.
CCAP also said it supports the retention of the
natural gas impact fee that became available through Act 13 of 2012.
Distribution of impact fees in all 67 counties have made it possible
for counties to allocate funds for a variety of needs, the