Gov. Wolf vetoes Republican budget, will release funds for schools
Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday 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 for the first time in six months.
“I don't want to hold the children of Pennsylvania hostage because of the inability of people in Harrisburg to get the job done,” said Wolf, as he announced a series of line item vetoes to the budget bill sent to his desk just before Christmas.
But with no tax code, no agreement on pension reform and negotiations looming over about $8 billion in spending, the announcement signaled no imminent end to Pennsylvania's longest budget impasse in at least four decades.
Wolf, a Democrat, blasted the $30.3 billion budget bill preferred by House Republican leaders as “garbage” and an “exercise in stupidity.”
“They can throw around all the political nonsense they want, but the fact remains they ran off — pretty quickly, at that — before they finished their job, and they left us with a real holiday mess,” Wolf said.
House Majority Leader Dave Reed said Wolf's line-item vetoes were “expected.” He supported releasing money to schools and human service providers, to which the state owes more than $700 million, but accused Wolf of taking new “hostages.”
The budget contains no money for state-related universities such as Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh, and includes only six months of funding for Corrections and school districts.
Wolf cut more than $6.8 billion — including more than $3 billion from basic education, nearly$2 billion from medical assistance for the poor, nearly $1 billion from prisons and more than $51 million from legislative operations — in a bid to force legislators to reinstate the funding and appropriate more money for education.
The governor “has certainly kept hostages in his room to be able to force everybody back to the table, for what I can only presume would be even higher taxes in the long term,” Reed said. “We won't be content until all the hostages are released.”
The Republican budget fell short of a “framework” agreement the governor and legislative leaders reached before Thanksgiving. That framework fell apart in the House.
Wolf slammed House Republicans for scuttling the deal he cut with both Senate caucuses and House Democrats for a $30.8 billion budget that would raise taxes but boost funding for public schools by $350 million, reform public pensions and make liquor system changes. It would have increased spending 6 percent.
“The House Republican budget was $500 million out of balance,” said Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa of Forest Hills. “It does not address the $1.3 billion structural deficit that has hobbled state government and simply continued (former Gov. Tom) Corbett-type budgeting for another year.”
Wolf said he would still sign the $30.8 billion deal that cleared the Senate, 43-7.
House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody of Oakmont said Wolf's “use of constitutional line-item veto authority” will force lawmakers “to get back to work on an honest budget for a full year, a budget that actually balances.”
“There's now a chance for all sides to step away from the endless argument of the last six months and look for better ways to finish the work we were sent to do,” Dermody said.
By law, a budget was due by July 1, but lawmakers face few consequences when they fail to meet that deadline. Some schools and social service providers, on the other hand, had to borrow money to stay open. A number of schools said they would close if they did not receive state funds by mid-January.
Mercer County's Greenville Area School District had considered remaining closed after Christmas break. Wolf's announcement likely means the district can stay open without using a $4.2 million line of credit it secured, said school board President Dennis Webber, whose 1,550-student district about 75 miles north of Pittsburgh includes the financially distressed borough of Greenville.
“It's time to get past all of that,” said Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman of Centre County. “We're prepared to work with the House and the Senate and the governor and Senate Democrats to try to bring this thing to a conclusion.”
The level of education funding Wolf desired would require tax increases, which some Republican legislators adamantly oppose.
This was the second full budget Republicans offered to the governor. The first he vetoed in its entirety, saying it met none of his funding priorities, especially more money for education. Wolf then vetoed a “stopgap” budget aimed primarily at funding schools.
In his address, Wolf lamented the demise of the framework agreement.
“This budget is doubly frustrating because we were so close to a reasonable one,” he said. “I get it that everyone is tired of this stalemate, but we were almost there. And this makes what they did all that much more unconscionable. They simply left town before finishing their jobs.”
Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Donald Gilliland is an assistant metro editor. Staff writer Tom Fontaine contributed.