Friday, November 27, 2015

State Budget Twists, Turns, Cliffhangers, But No Happy Ending... Yet

This week’s actions surrounding the state budget had as many twists and turns as a holiday blockbuster.
On Monday,  Gov. Tom Wolf told the Pennsylvania Press Club Republicans should do what they agreed to do: pass a budget by Thanksgiving based on the framework agreed to November 10; except they couldn’t because they can’t deliver the votes.
Instead of working on passing the budget framework, Wolf said, Senate Republicans focused on voting a school property tax elimination bill-- Senate Bill 76 (Argall-R-Schuylkill)-- that is not part of the framework and which Wolf said he would veto.
Instead, Wolf said, House Republicans passed a liquor reform bill-- House Bill 1690 (Turzai-R-Allegheny)-- that was identical to the bill he vetoed in July.
One other alternative to passing the budget framework as is, Wolf said, “they can present me with any full year spending plan that can pass by next Friday” and he'll sign it.  [Yes, he said that.] But, he said, he will not sign a stopgap funding bill.
Later Monday night, the audience in the Senate gallery was on the edge of their seats for every vote cast when an effort to eliminate school property taxes through an amendment to House Bill 683 (Rapp-R-Forest) failed in a very rare tie vote-- 24 to 24.   Lt. Gov. Stack (D) had to break the tie by voting no.
Sen. Wayne Fontana (D-Allegheny), a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 76, was not present to vote because he apparently had to attend a previously scheduled fundraiser in Pittsburgh.  
One Senate seat was vacant until the swearing in of Sen.-Elect Guy Reschenthaler (R-Allegheny)... Tuesday.
Were the two Senate absences deliberate?  It remains a mystery.
On Tuesday evening, after more fruitless budget discussions, Senate Republicans threatened to try an override of Gov. Wolf’s veto of the stopgap budget Republicans passed in September.  
Less than an hour after the threat was issued, and a meeting held between Senate and House Leaders and Gov. Wolf, the threat was rescinded with the announcement budget talks have resumed.
At the same time, Republicans said the effort to use a Sales Tax increase to fund $1.4 billion in additional school property tax relief as agreed to in the budget framework was dropped because many of their own members and Democrats would not vote for it.  
Somehow, they said, they would look for other revenue sources.  And that’s where matters came to an uncomfortable rest before the holiday.  
Wednesday, Gov. Wolf took time to tweet his family’s recipe for Thanksgiving stuffing.  A hidden message there?  Another mystery.
Meanwhile, counties struggling to deal with the lack of state funding said they would begin to withhold millions in fees and other monies they collect and pass on to the state, if the budget impasse continues.  Other counties threatened to sue the state to release the funding they are owed.
The House, nose to the grindstone, added voting days to the schedule, including through Saturday of next week (which will never happen) to show they are working hard.  They also added December 10, 11 and 12 (another Thursday, Friday and Saturday that won’t happen) to their schedule.
Unless, of course, they have something to vote on.
Many House Republicans also announced they would forgo the food, fun and shopping of New York City by not attending the Pennsylvania Society dinner the weekend of December 12 if there was no budget.  Since this year’s awardee is former Gov. Ed Rendell (D), it probably didn’t take much convincing for them to make that decision.
Then again, Donald Trump was just announced as the headline speaker at the marquee December 11 Commonwealth Club luncheon, a pre-PA Society dinner event.  A photo with Trump and admission to the VIP section only costs $2,500 per.
The Senate added December 2 as a voting day, but apparently unrelated to budget issues.  Presumably, they will continue the process of removing indicted Attorney General Kathleen Kane now that its Special Committee on Senate Address Wednesday said it had enough information to proceed to take a vote.
The Senate did take time from its busy schedule to delve into foreign policy by adopting, largely along party lines, a resolution-- Senate Resolution 248 (Rafferty-R-Montgomery) on blocking Syrian refugees-- sponsored by a declared Republican candidate for Attorney General.
Otherwise, the Senate is scheduled to return to session December 7-- Pearl Harbor Day.
Speaking of spending money, Saturday’s PA Bulletin also brought the official news that House and Senate members would not be getting a cost of living raise for their efforts next year.
There are now only 65 days to Gov. Wolf’s second budget address-- February 2-- Groundhog Day.
Are we likely to see a replay of the, as yet, unfinished budget process from this year?  There are hints.
Gov. Wolf has already said he is bringing back a natural gas severance tax in his new budget proposal next year to fund something [most likely a Growing Greener III environmental restoration program] even though it did not have significant bipartisan support [sic] last time around.
What will the next plot twist be?  How will our heroes resolve the crisis?
Tune in next week….

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