After 9-Month Budget Standoff, Pennsylvania Governor Surrenders

by | March 23, 2016

By Karen Langley

Gov. Tom Wolf said this afternoon he will allow an appropriations bill to complete this year's state budget to become law without his signature.

The Democratic governor said he does not believe the final budget is in balance, and so will not sign his name to it. But he said he will allow it to become law so the state can "move on to face the budget challenges" of next year.

"This means that schools will stay open through the end of the year," Mr. Wolf said. "But unless Harrisburg changes its ways, they won't have adequate funds for next year."

The budget bill will become law Monday, after Mr. Wolf does not act on it Sunday, his spokesman said.

Mr. Wolf said he would also allow appropriations for the state-related universities, which include the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State University, to become law without his signature.

"Grateful," was the word Kenn Marshall used to describe the reaction of the State System of Higher Education to news of what amounts to a 5 percent funding increase contained in the new state budget.

"We're grateful for the new investment in the system -- basically, the new investment in our students," said Mr. Marshall, media relations manager for SSHS.

The allocation amounts to $20.6 million, which represents the first increase in seven years, Mr.Marshall said.

It will go two-thirds the distance toward covering what had been a mounting budget deficit.

House and Senate Republican leaders praised the governor's decision. House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, said they want to begin work at once on the budget for the year beginning July 1.

"Obviously, the last year's been a struggle," Mr. Reed said. "It's had its ups and downs. But we are very happy to see a budget become law that has a record increase for education, record spending for higher education, early childhood education."

Pennsylvania has gone without a complete state budget for nearly nine months, as Mr. Wolf and the Republican legislative majorities negotiated over the spending plan and related issues.

Mr. Wolf has pressed for tax increases to boost education funding and close a structural deficit. Republicans have resisted tax hikes and pushed for changes to the retirement systems for state and school workers and to the system of wine and liquor sales.

State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe of Cranberry, one of the House's most conservative Republicans, hailed the governor's decision as a "victory for taxpayers."

"It's good news that the governor said he wasn't going to veto yet another budget bill we've placed on his desk. We've been pushing for a budget with responsible spending and no tax increase," he said.

Rep. Metcalfe said the best feature of the spending plan that will take become law on Monday is that "it funds state government operations without a tax increase. There's no increasing the tax burden on the people of Pennsylvania. We've been fighting the governor on this for nine months," he said.

When the General Assembly last week sent him the new appropriations bill, 13 House Democrats joined Republicans in voting yes.

In December, Mr. Wolf signed most of a Republican-crafted budget, but used a line-item veto to reduce the main K-12 education line to about half a year of funding, part of an effort to draw legislators back to negotiations. Cash-starved schools at all levels are celebrating the release of funds.

Mr. Marshall said the system, which has an annual budget of about $1.6 million, was facing a $60 million budget deficit as of the start of this fiscal year, July 1, 2015. About half of that amount was covered by a 3.5 percent tuition increase, leaving about a $30 million deficit.

"We were looking to handle that ($30 million deficit) with cuts. This $20.6 million will help erase most of that. We'll still have $10 million to make up for but it's not $30 million," he said.

This allocation was included in the budget that the governor vetoed in December. It represents a 5 percent increase over the 2014-15 allocation to the SSHS. "We had had the same level of funding for four years and the year before that (2011-12) we had had a 20 percent cut," Mr. Marshall said.

Jerry Oleksiak, the president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, was more reserved.

"This isn't the kind of budget that our schools need or that our students deserve," he said in a statement, "but it keeps our schools open and ensures that Pennsylvania's students can finish the school year without the threat of their schools shutting down."

(c)2016 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette