Vetoes on liquor, pensions on table for Pennsylvania Gov. Wolf
HARRISBURG — Anthony May said he has no doubt that Gov. Tom Wolf has the political fortitude in a little more than a week to veto pension or liquor reform bills and a state budget, if necessary, to emphasize his priorities.
“What does he have to lose by throwing down two or three vetoes?” said May, a former top aide to the late Democratic Gov. Robert P. Casey.
It may be necessary to protect the issues on which Wolf campaigned last year as the Republican-controlled Legislature and the Democratic governor stare down the eight remaining days until they must sign a budget into law.
Here’s why: Working closely together for the first time in years, House and Senate GOP leaders may send a liquor privatization bill and a pension reform bill to Wolf, along with a balanced budget by June 30, top leaders say. Wolf has stated his opposition to the liquor and pension bills, and he has a separate set of spending and revenue ideas.
“Passage of a pension bill and liquor reform are the keys to a balanced budget,” said House Speaker Mike Turzai of Marshall. “The citizens of Pennsylvania are not in support of the tax hikes put on the table by the governor.”
Turzai said he and Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati of Jefferson County share common goals. They contend savings from changing the public pension system and gaining money from selling state stores would help fund the budget without raising taxes.
If the Senate passes a bill to sell the state stores, it would be historic. The House approved a similar bill for the first time in 2013 and again this year.
Wolf remains hopeful he’ll reach agreement with legislative leaders, his spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan said. But he stands by his priorities — a “common sense” severance tax on natural gas drilling to restore education funding that was cut in the past few years; property tax relief for middle-class taxpayers and seniors; and closing the deficit “without any gimmicks.”
“He’s not going to accept any less,” Sheridan said. “What’s more important to the governor than an on-time budget is a budget of substance.”
Passing a severance tax on natural gas “would be insane,” said Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington County. “We need to support this industry and help get the product to market (with infrastructure).”
Drilling for gas in the Marcellus shale has added hundreds of thousands of jobs, Bartolotta said. Taxing the industry “isn’t common sense,” she said.
Legislative negotiators are operating on two tracks, said Andrew Crompton, general counsel for Senate Republicans.
On one hand, they are trying to reach an agreement among the House, Senate and Wolf on a universal budget deal. Separately, they are trying to work out what’s needed to get liquor and pension bills through the House if a deal can’t be reached with Wolf.
The House in March passed a bill to sell the state-controlled liquor system.
It would sell the wholesale liquor business and phase out 600 state-owned liquor and wine stores.
The Senate is working off the Turzai-backed House bill, Crompton said. There’s a separate privatization bill, filed Friday by Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York County. It’s not clear what type of proposal might emerge.
The Senate approved a pension relief bill in May to address soaring costs. Under the bill, guaranteed pensions would be banned for future state and school employees, and benefits would be reduced for current workers when they retire. New employees would get 401(k)-type plans.
Turzai said he believes the House will approve a “robust pension bill” using the Senate legislation as a “focal point.”
The leaders are trying to fashion legislation that can garner the necessary votes.
May said pension and liquor proposals are complicated bills with “a lot of pieces to the jigsaw puzzle.”
With little time remaining, May said he doesn’t think the Senate and House can agree on pension and liquor reform. The chambers haven’t shown the capacity to strike relatively quick deals on complex litigation.
“I’m not saying they’re not trying. I’m not saying they are not working hard,” he said.
But Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, said there’s “a reasonable chance” the House and Senate can do so.
“When it’s clear a bill is DOA, it may give it some life” because lawmakers know the vote isn’t final, he said.
“Expectation of a veto does let legislators support some bills they would otherwise work to oppose,” Borick said.
Borick thinks Wolf could veto the first budget sent to him, along with pension and liquor bills: “He has the political capital to do that.”
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media’s state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.