Monday, October 26, 2015

Close but no cigar

That’s the state budget right now, at least according to Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny. 

“Over the course of the past several months, we’ve had a series of meetings, often times they were not very productive, but what I can tell you is there have been a series of meetings that, I think, would lead us to be more encouraged that the outcome … is a lot closer than I think folks recognize,” Costa told the Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon Monday afternoon at the Harrisburg Hilton. “I think that’s a positive sign.” 

He qualified those comments a bit when asked about them after the luncheon, saying, “I’m an optimist, and good conversations have been taking place, and I think we’re probably honing in on some things that will help us get to a resolution sooner than later.” 

One of the things that might help produce a resolution, at least from the perspective of legislative Republicans, is that broad-based taxes won’t be part of a final state budget plan.

Said Costa: “It’s my belief. I believe what my colleagues in the Senate Republican Caucus have told us. I think that they’re sincere in their position that they believe they’re not able to get that through their caucus. So I think now we are looking at other ways that we can get to the same end, or close to the same end.”

House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin echoed what Costa said his GOP colleagues in the Senate have been telling him.

“We are not into raising revenues just to raise revenues,” said Miskin Monday afternoon. “We need to know how much we’re spending.”

Costa offered a similar comment when asked during the luncheon if any of his Democratic Senate colleagues were ready to put up a vote for a personal income tax increase or a sales tax hike and/or expansion.

Costa: “It’s a tough question to answer in isolation. Our members are ready to address and support a comprehensive approach that addresses a whole bunch of things,” he said. “Trust me, we need about $2 billion-plus dollars to deal with the structural deficit in 2016-17, how much of that we get will determine how many members participate – I think that’s what’s important. 

“It depends on what the package looks like – what are the investments in education, is Marcellus part of the solution, what are the investments in human services – what are those types of things going to look like. Those are all going to be factors that are part of the conversation we’re going to have with our [Democratic] members about how many members support a proposal.”

When later asked if lawmakers could come up with $2 billion without broad-based tax hikes, he said, “You can certainly get to just about any number – you can get to it, but whether you can get the votes for it remains to be seen.

“And that’s what we’re trying to get our arms around.”

Costa said recent meetings involving the four legislative caucuses and Budget Secretary Randy Albright have been useful in “narrowing the issues,” including “conversations about revenues … spend numbers, all that kind of stuff – we’re trying to get our arms around what options will be available, to what degree we want to look at property tax relief, in addition to pensions and wine and spirit privatization.

“A number of other things are sort of percolating at this time.”

He said it was unlikely his caucus – and legislative Democrats, in general, along with Gov. Tom Wolf – would back off of the need for $400 million in additional funding for basic education. He also indicated one item that remains close to resolution is pension reform, although discussions continue regarding how to construct a new retirement plan for future state and public school employees.

Costa did express concerns about the recent interest in turning to an expansion of gambling to generate more revenues for Pennsylvania, calling it “fool’s gold” and invoking the recent small games of chance effort that failed to generate promised revenues.

And he said while there’s no specific revenue amount in mind for a natural gas severance tax, imposing a tax that’s greater than the current impact fee is necessary to ensure the Marcellus community is contributing what the public expects them to contribute.

Costa explained: “Right now they’re [natural gas industry] not deemed to be part of the solution … it’s not necessarily the amount of money, but more importantly, I think, it’s how the public perceives the work that we did here: if we do a budget that includes enhanced revenues without doing Marcellus, I believe the people of this commonwealth won’t be very happy with the members who supported that … because that was the charge we had – make investments in education, make investments in human service programs, look to the Marcellus shale community, look for property tax relief, look for job creation.”

Reacting to the need for more money to balance both this year’s budget and the 2016-17 budget, Miskin said the goal is to have a balanced budget for 2015-16. And while Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed several GOP-constructed budgets because they included one-time revenues to balance the budget, Miskin argued they were still balanced.

“We need to look at all the revenues that are available in the Commonwealth’s accounts before we look to raising taxes on Pennsylvanians and employers,” said Miskin.

And despite the ongoing public sniping between the various players in the current budget drama, Miskin did agree with Costa’s characterization of the budget situation being better now than it has been. 

“The goal has always been to have a bi-partisan budget that gets the governor’s signature,” said Miskin. 

“We finally have partners, that’s the difference,” Miskin added, referencing legislative Democrats.

Miskin said there are no meetings between legislative leaders and Wolf currently planned, but all the parties involved are hopeful the next week or two will produce progress toward a break in the impasse.

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