Governor, lawmakers aren't panicking as budget push nears

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Governor, lawmakers aren't panicking as budget push nears. Gray Hall reports during Action News at 9 a.m. on May 27, 2018. (WPVI)

As the most intense part of this year's budget season is about to get underway, it's been remarkably quiet in the state Capitol, and policymakers say they're hopeful that bodes well for an improvement in what's been a strained process for several years.

Republican leaders in the Legislature say they hope a deal can be completely wrapped up before the June 30 deadline, thanks to stable tax revenues and a political environment that has lowered expectations for major new initiatives.

"You're not talking about billion-dollar deficits anymore," said House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, while at the same time cautioning that "you never know how things turn out."

The state budget has been a nightmarish process for the past decade, as sluggish revenues, rising health care costs, business tax cuts and long-avoided bills coming due for pension obligations combined to put the crunch on state finances.

These days the focus is on revenues that appear to be meeting projections. A governor's race and looming legislative elections may also have a lot to do with the subdued tone.

"It's quiet because the gravity of the decisions that need to be made to accommodate very challenging financial situations creates a louder conversation because it's more controversial," said Senate Appropriations Chairman Pat Browne, R-Lehigh.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has not signed the main budget bills during any of his first three years in office, instead letting spending plans passed by the Republican-majority House and Senate take effect without his signature.

Asked about that record, the administration provided a written statement that he's supported the last two spending plans but "refused to sign spending bills that weren't paid for by the General Assembly, which failed to pass all the main components of the budget on time. Gov. Wolf drew a line in the sand and refused to allow backdoor cuts to education, health care or programs for seniors."

Wolf is currently less than six months away from facing voters as he seeks a second term, running against state Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York, who will have a vote on the budget bills.

During the annual budget speech in February, Wolf endorsed additional spending on career and technical education and again advocated for a tax on natural gas drilling, a perennial Democratic proposal that Republicans have perennially opposed. He also wants more money for addiction treatment.

The governor's $33 billion proposal would represent a 3 percent increase, including about $225 million more for education and a $230 million increase for services at home for the elderly and disabled. He also wants a $25-per-person fee for state police coverage in areas that do not have their own full-time police force, a proposal previously rejected by Republicans - many from rural districts where state police represent the first line of law enforcement.

"The governor didn't introduce a budget that had a lot of controversy to it," said Sen. Vince Hughes of Philadelphia, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. He said he sees the Capitol "evolving into a budget season that hopefully is short."

Speaking to the Pennsylvania Press Club last week, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said he was disappointed he could not reach a deal with Wolf last year that traded a modest gas drilling tax for regulatory changes to help the industry push back against fee increases, inspections and permit delays.

He now thinks that could happen next year, or maybe in five years, or maybe after he's left the Senate - but predicted that if it gets ironed out, "we're not going to have the deal that we had last year."

The Wolf administration says the governor's shale tax proposal would generate $249 million next year, $264 million in 2019-20 and $355 million in 2020-21.

Scarnati said he hopes to direct more money to improve school safety by the time a spending plan is enacted in the coming weeks or months.

"I believe we can increase some grants to schools that would hire and put on board professionals in order to help students, if they have issues," he said.

Rep. Joe Markosek of Allegheny County, the ranking Democrat on Appropriations, said the form is to be determined but the general support for school safety money is broad.

"I would say that's very high on everyone's agenda this year," Markosek said.

The state's financial picture got a bit brighter with a U.S. Supreme Court decision earlier this month legalizing sports betting, although the administration is still trying to sort out how much it will be worth. On the other hand, there's a recent federal court ruling that $200 million in the current year's budget can't be siphoned out of a fund for medical malpractice insurance.

After Memorial Day weekend, the House will be in session for 16 days and the Senate 14 before the budget deadline.

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(Copyright ©2018 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)