After Pension Overhaul Collapses Budget Talks, Pennsylvania Lawmakers Regroup

by | December 21, 2015

By Kate Giammarise

How exactly Pennsylvania's nearly six-month budget impasse will end remained unclear Sunday, the day after the collapse of a pension overhaul bill that was part of a deal many hoped would end more than 170 days of state budget gridlock.

Legislative staffers and some elected officials were meeting behind closed doors in the Capitol on Sunday, with the hallways of the building largely dark, save for tourists photographing the Christmas tree in the Rotunda.

"This is not over. We still need a budget," Jeffrey Sheridan, a spokesman for Democratic Governor Tom Wolf, said Sunday.

Mr. Wolf and the Republicans who control both the state House and Senate appear to be caught in a bind: Senate Republicans have said they want reforms to pensions for state and public school employees -- a large cost-driver in the state's budget -- and they won't vote for the new taxes Mr. Wolf seeks for increased education spending without pension changes.

The pension overhaul they proposed went down to a resounding defeat Saturday in the House in a 149-52 vote, with all Democrats and more than half of the Republicans opposing the bill. House Republicans have indicated they will likely move toward passing a so-called stopgap or partial-year budget, something the governor and Senate Republicans have said they oppose.

"We are still looking for a 12-month budget. That is our goal," said Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, following a meeting of Republican House and Senate leaders late Sunday.

As the months have passed without state payments to schools and social services, the stakes in the budget debate have grown higher.

Last week, a coalition of 30 nonprofits, lead by the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership, called on the governor and the general assembly to pass a full-year budget, not a stopgap.

"A 'stop-gap' or 'rescue budget' neither ends nor rescues, and is effectively no real budget at all," the letter stated. "Pennsylvanians have waited six months -- half the year -- for a budget providing a clear direction from their elected leaders. In the meantime, citizens and organizations have been effectively paralyzed in their planning for the future while struggling each day to provide basic services to the communities they have been called to serve. As of today, your indecision has forced organizations to cut positions and services or limit their expansion of offerings for the people of the state."

The letter also said passing a stopgap would be "abdicat[ing] your responsibility, and leave Pennsylvanians with no budget and no direction. This is no answer to the budget crisis. Pennsylvania is starving for a budget and a stop gap is merely giving a pacifier to an infant who needs full nutrition to survive."

The House is not expected to be in session today, though it has scheduled committee meetings where a stopgap proposal could be put forward. House members are scheduled to be in Harrisburg Tuesday and Wednesday. It is not clear when Senators will next return to the Capitol.

"The ball is clearly in their court," Drew Crompton, the top lawyer for Senate Republicans said on Sunday, referring to the House.

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