HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – A measure combining all of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed tax increases went down unanimously Monday in the state House, but Republicans and Democrats had much different reasons for voting against it.
Republicans brought up their own tax amendment to make a point about the viability of the spending plan that Wolf proposed in March along with higher taxes on retail sales, personal income and drilling in the Marcellus Shale natural gas formation.
“It’s only fair that, in order to have a balanced budget, we air our differences and make sure that the taxpayers of Pennsylvania know how the governor’s spending plan will be paid for,” said Rep. Bill Adolph, R-Delaware, who chairs the Appropriations Committee.
The issue arose after Republicans introduced the current year’s budget as a placeholder, to meet advance-notice rules in the annual budget process that is now less than a month away from a soft deadline of June 30.
Adolph’s Democratic counterpart, Rep. Joe Markosek, of Allegheny County, then sought to amend it with Wolf’s spending proposal.
“In a year when the economy has turned around, unemployment has come down, we are running a huge deficit,” Markosek said. “It’s not because the people in Pennsylvania aren’t doing well, it’s because of the past budgets that are basically phony that we ended up in the situation that we are in now. It didn’t work. And here we are today, doing the same thing.”
Republicans, as the chamber’s majority party, were able to set aside Markosek’s amendment and instead brought up the Wolf tax package, which sponsor Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, said amounts to $12.7 billion over the next two years, although that figure includes money that would cut local property taxes.
“If colleagues want that level of funding for those line items, this is your opportunity,” Grove said, adding that his goal was to “find out exactly where we are on tax and spend policy.”
Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, called the Grove proposal “pure politics” before his members joined Republicans to defeat it, 193-0.
“It has nothing to do with the budget priorities of the people of this commonwealth,” Dermody said.
But Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, noted Wolf has promoted his 2015-16 taxes and spending proposal as a “holistic” approach, defending the vote on the slew of taxes in one piece. He said the House should set its revenue target before determining how it will be spent.
“We will not turn Harrisburg into Washington, D.C.,” Reed said. “We will not spend money that does not exist.”
Wolf called a brief news conference at which he described the maneuver as an unproductive stunt.
“This is the kind of gamesmanship that we were not sent here to play,” Wolf said.
Wolf and the Republican-controlled Legislature enter June, the last month of the fiscal year, with significant budget challenges and a host of other complicated issues before them, including a massive structural deficit and proposals to change the state’s public-sector pensions, liquor store network and system of local property taxes that fund public education.
The Senate had no major votes expected this week as it considers Wolf’s Cabinet nominees.
On Monday, the Senate’s Finance and Environmental Resources and Energy committees heard testimony about the governor’s proposal to raise gas drilling taxes to boost state aid to public schools.
Exploration companies and business organizations oppose the tax increase, and Republicans cautioned that holding the hearing shouldn’t be viewed as their endorsement of the plan.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Eichelberger, R-Blair, said he opposes any tax increase on natural gas production, but he suggested that enough Republicans may be willing to support a tax increase to propel it into a final budget agreement with Wolf.
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