HARRISBURG, Pa. (KDKA/AP) – Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf made good on his threat and swiftly vetoed the Republican-crafted spending plan Tuesday night just hours after the GOP’s huge majorities in the Legislature sent it to him on the last day of the state government’s fiscal year.
The veto was Wolf’s first in his more than five months in office and the first of a full budget bill in Pennsylvania in more than four decades.
In a news conference in his Capitol offices, Wolf panned the bill as being packed with gimmicks – Republicans defended them as an alternative to a tax increase – that would worsen the state’s long-term budget imbalance to more than $3 billion in a year.
“There are gimmicks in here, smoke and mirrors and a lot of kicking the can down the road,” Wolf said after a day full of debates and votes in the Legislature.
Wolf said signing the GOP budget bill would further damage Pennsylvania’s reputation with credit rating agencies, three of which slapped the state with downgrades last year because of a growing deficit. He suggested the GOP’s budget would never pass muster in the business world where he once operated.
“If I took a budget that looked anything like this to my bank, they would have thrown me out of the office,” Wolf said. “The math doesn’t work.”
Wolf also challenged it as shortchanging public schools and letting the Marcellus Shale natural gas industry off the hook without a severance tax. Another Wolf priority, legislation to cut local school property taxes statewide, has been stalled in the Senate after passing the House.
Republicans sent the $30.2 billion, no-new-taxes bill to Wolf after negotiations between the two sides stalled in recent weeks. The budget bill passed the Senate on Tuesday and the House on Saturday. But it passed without any Democratic lawmaker’s support, making it extremely unlikely that Republicans could muster the two-thirds majority in both houses to override the veto.
During four hours of debate Tuesday, Republicans defended their budget bill as a responsible alternative to the multibillion-dollar tax increase sought by Wolf to wipe out the deficit and reverse deep cuts in education made under his Republican predecessor.
The GOP’s budget bill would authorize an additional $1.1 billion in spending, primarily for rising costs for public pensions and health care, as well as $200 million more for education. Gimmicks, they contended, are preferable to raising taxes.
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said he was disappointed by Wolf’s veto but also said it is now up to Wolf to produce a plan that can pass the Legislature, since his first one could not.
“The governor owns this now,” Corman said. “The General Assembly put up the votes to pass a balanced budget. He owns the fact that we don’t have a budget now, and we will wait for him to offer a new plan.”
The absence of a budget as the new fiscal year began was not expected to have an immediate effect on services because agencies can tap surpluses and special funds, but the situation could deteriorate if the impasse drags on. The state will lose the authority to pay its vendors for work done from Wednesday on.
Corman said he and Wolf were unable to meet Wednesday, and he was unsure when they would talk next.
Republicans pushed the spending plan through amid a flurry of votes on an ambitious agenda Tuesday. That agenda included a bill to license private companies to take over the state-controlled wine and liquor system and a bill to squeeze savings from the large pension systems by ending the traditional pension benefit for future school employees and state workers.
For the first time ever, both the State House and Senate approved a Republican bill to privatize liquor sales.
But whether the governor will now veto it remains unclear.
People we talked with had opposing opinions on the idea.
“It is time for a change, and probably the hours will be better, you know, more weekends, open on weekends,” said Patty Plakosh of Economy Borough.
But Alex Olawaiye of Sewickley Hills is concerned about the 4,700 employees who would lose their jobs if the state stores are phased out.
“The people are ever so nice, and I would hate for them to lose their jobs,” said Olawaiye.
But proponents say privatizing will make hundreds of millions of dollars for the state each year and actually create new jobs.
Political analyst Bill Green says privatization has been supported by Republican governors since 1983, but this is the first time it’s ever gotten this far.
“The difficulty has been in the Senate, even when Governor Corbett – a Republican – had a Republican Senate and a Republican House, he could not get it through the Republican Senate. So it would get bogged down there,” said Green.
And as for what Democratic Governor Tom Wolf will do with it now, he says he needs to take a look. He says the privatization bill and another bill are still being printed. “I’ll start looking at them tomorrow,” he said.
He expressed some reservations about privatization at the end of a press conference Tuesday night, but acknowledged that the state store system can be improved.
The wine and liquor privatization plan would allow about 14,000 beer-sales license holders – retailers, restaurants, grocery stores and others – to pay a higher fee for permission to also sell wine, liquor or both.
It would also provide a pathway to the closure of the approximately 600 state-controlled wine and liquor stores and, Republicans said, add convenience and modernization to an archaic system.
Democrats countered that the plan would irresponsibly liquidate a valuable state money maker for virtually nothing.
During debate on the pension bill, Republican backers said the current system is not sustainable for taxpayers. Democrats slammed the proposal as taking away retirement security for future state government and public school employees and risking a court challenge.
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