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February 09, 2016

Gov. Wolf proposes 2016-17 budget despite impasse on current one

The plan boosts school funding and raises the minimum wage

What can be said when the time comes for a governor to deliver the state's annual budget address, but the prior year's budget remains incomplete?

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf gave it a stab Tuesday morning.

"This will not be an ordinary governor's budget address," Wolf said. "Usually, this speech is an opportunity to lay out an ambitious agenda for the year ahead. ... But I can't give that speech. Not under these circumstances."

Wolf, a Democrat elected in 2014, has battled with the Republican-led Legislature to pass the 2015-16 fiscal budget, which is more than seven months overdue. He signed a $23.4 billion emergency funding budget in late December to provide funding to schools and social service agencies. 

Earlier in December, a finalized budget appeared possible when a proposal backed by Wolf passed with bipartisan support in the Senate. But the House never put the proposal up for a vote.

Wolf chided House Republicans for leaving that proposal on the table. His comments were met with disapproving shouts from legislators.

"We had a deal," Wolf said. "And then the House Republican leaders walked away. Only in Harrisburg could that be seen as an acceptable way to do business."

Nevertheless, Wolf submitted a $32.7 billion budget proposal for 2016-17 that boosts basic education funding by $200 million and increases the minimum wage to $10.15 per hour. The budget proposal calls for an income tax hike and a severance tax on Marcellus Shale.

Pension obligations increase by $500 million as state legislators continue to debate pension reform possibilities. The budget proposal also anticipates the state-controlled liquor retail business generating an additional $100 million in revenue, but specifics of how that would happen were not outlined.

Wolf warned of an impending "crisis" that threatens the jobs of thousands of education professionals and millions of dollars dedicated to services to senior citizens, people with disabilities, child care and domestic violence centers.

All of it, Wolf said, is the result of Pennsylvania's $2 billion budget deficit.

"Simply put, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania cannot meet its obligations to its citizens if the General Assembly does not meet its obligation to pass a responsible budget," Wolf said.

Pennsylvania Republican Party Chairman Rob Gleason blamed Wolf for the budget impasse, saying his vetoes of prior budget proposals "single-handedly" caused a "budget crisis."

"Now, Tom Wolf just gave a budget proposal that's filled with calls for the same massive tax hikes that got Pennsylvania into this mess in the first place," Gleason said in a statement. "How can Tom Wolf claim he's 'proud' of his actions during the ongoing budget crisis when so many families are still suffering?"

Wolf said a responsible budget does not include "gimmicks and quick fixes" used to pass state budgets in recent years. He pledged a willingness to compromise on some of his priorities if Republicans are willing to do likewise.

"We can get it done," Wolf said. "Send that compromise budget to my desk, and we can put our Commonwealth on more secure footing than it has been in years. But let me be very, very clear with each of you. We are going to have to stop playing games with our fiscal future."