By Chris Comisac
HARRISBURG (Dec. 16) - The more than five-month-old budget impasse might be over by the end of this weekend ... or things could be a lot worse.
At least that was the feeling after various meetings of legislative leaders and Gov. Tom Wolf Wednesday afternoon. Later in the day, once the Capitol press corps heard from House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, the situation had a not-so-good, eerily-familiar feel to it.
House Republican Caucus leaders, who for the last week-and-a-half have said they can’t get their caucus to back the budget framework agreement to which they themselves agreed back on Nov. 9, said late Wednesday afternoon they have given Wolf 24 hours to pull together the votes necessary to pass a General Appropriations bill in the state House of Representatives.
“We told the governor this is a plan he has asked everyone for a vote on – he needs to get 102 votes,” said Turzai. “It’s his plan, he needs to find the votes to pass it.”
House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin later said House GOP leaders are not asking their caucus to support the plan.
Throughout the budget impasse, legislative Republicans have challenged the governor to show the amount of support he has for his budget plans. The most recent challenge on which Wolf came up short (only 73 House Democratic votes) was an Oct. 7 House vote for a $1.4 billion revenue package ($2.4 billion annualized over a full fiscal year).
“The issue has always been about the taxes,” said Turzai, blaming new revenue requests for the continued lack of a state budget.
He said a new tax package has been supplied to all four legislative caucuses for their review, along with complete details about the GA bill. As already reported by Capitolwire, the tax package would need to produce a bit more than $700 million in new recurring revenue for the current fiscal year, which would produce approximately $1.8 billion for the full 2016-17 fiscal year.
However, no additional tax package details were offered by the House Republicans, and later Miskin said he didn’t believe the package under review “is the definitive package.” Miskin also suggested the GA bill could change between now and a potential final vote on Saturday depending on what promises Wolf might have to make to drum up votes.
Currently, the one GA bill in the House – Senate Bill 1073 – has yet to get any days of consideration in the House, and three are required before it can get a final vote. That means if SB1073 gets its first day of House consideration on Thursday, Saturday is the earliest a final vote could take place. However, Wolf has been given a deadline of approximately 12:30 p.m. Thursday to indicate he has the votes.
Earlier in the day, House Democrats said they, with the help of Wolf, are trying to pull together as many votes as they can – out of their 84 members – to commit to the roughly $30.8 billion spending plan.
“Give me a break, it’s time to get things done, there’s no question about that – we shouldn’t be lollygagging around here, if you will, we need to finish it,” said House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, following the meetings. “I’d like to get it done in 24 hours, though I don’t think that’s realistic.”
As for if the votes are there to pass the framework spending plan, Dermody said, “I’m not sure; we’re going to find out.”
“Obviously these are difficult votes for folks, any time you’re talking about taxes and raising revenue it’s hard, but we need to govern –that’s what has to happen here,” added Dermody.
When asked about the revenues being considered, Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan issued the following statement: “Twice since November, Gov. Wolf has come to a bipartisan agreement with House and Senate leaders on a budget that makes historic investments in education and is balanced and paid for with revenue that begins to address our chronic deficit. Leaders from all four caucuses agreed to this budget - it is time to pass it.
“All parties agreed to this budget and all parties have been negotiating this budget for well over a month.
“The Senate has passed nearly every piece of the budget, and we have continued good faith negotiations on all outstanding issues. It is now time for House Republican leaders to deliver and help pass the budget.”
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, earlier Wednesday afternoon, also confirmed to Capitolwire votes are being counted in the House.
“I think they’re in vote-count mode over there,” Corman said of House Democrats and Wolf. “The House Republicans met with the governor today and told him if he wants this to happen, he’s gonna have to go get the votes – so I think they’re in the process of doing that.”
“Hopefully that will be achieved and we can move forward starting tomorrow – that would be the goal – but we’re at the mercy of the House right now,” he added.
And if the votes aren’t in the House?
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” said Dermody.
According to Turzai, if there aren’t enough votes, then the House GOP plans to begin another stopgap budget process that would provide 11 months of funding.
Miskin said it would only be an 11-month plan since it isn’t certain the state would have enough revenue under current law (no additional taxes) to fund a full 12 months of spending. The last stopgap effort – for about three months of funding - by legislative Republicans met with a Wolf veto.
A source close to the budget negotiations said the Wolf administration, if another stopgap is sent to the governor, is prepared to make what Gov. Tom Corbett did to the Legislature during last year's budget pale in comparison to what would happen to legislative Republicans under Wolf's blue pen. For those who don't remember, Corbett signed the FY2014-15 state budget, but line-item vetoed $65 million from the Legislature's operating budget.
Corman said he’s still talking with other Senate leaders, but it looks like the Senate will be in session this weekend to potentially put the finishing touches on a budget, as long as the House pulls everything together.
“We’re going to be sitting down talking about schedules, but we’ll be in the next couple days, I’m sure, and begin the process to finish up,” he said hopefully.
Corman said once they know things “are ready” in the House, the Senate is ready to move a tax code bill, although he said the final details have yet to be worked out on that.
“It’s just a matter of waiting for them,” he said with regard to the timing of a tax revenue bill.
“Look, when the House is ready, we’ll be ready, and then we can get this done in a couple days,” said Corman.
With regard to other bills in the framework, there still appear to be plenty of questions.
“It’s all a package,” said Miskin of what happens to the framework-related code bills if the GA bill passes. He seemed confident those framework bills would end up winning approval if the GA bill and revenue bill win approval. However when pressed if they those related bills get considered as they currently are, or if they could receive alterations, he answered, “I don’t know that.”
“The whole opt-in, opt-out was their creation, it was an accommodation for them, but if they’d rather do it this way, fine,” said Corman about the issue involving the now-optional enrollment of re-elected legislators into the new hybrid pension plan (newly-elected legislators will not have a choice, and be enrolled in the new plan). “Clearly all of our members will opt in, it’s something we believe in.”
And with regard to the $175 million in collars removed from the bill, Corman explained, “The collars are a budget issue. We think there are savings in this pension bill to do a collar next year, but if they don’t want to do it, I respect that – but obviously they have to make up the revenue somewhere.”
But Democrats are still hoping to make some changes to the pension bill, although it remains to be seen if they’ll happen.
“We believe the multiplier should be 1.25” percent, not the 1 percent currently included in the DB portion of the new hybrid plan, “we’re still fighting for that; we feel one is not a multiplier,” said Dermody.
Any amendment to the pension bill would require an actuarial note from the Public Employee Retirement Commission (PERC), and earlier on Wednesday, PERC Executive Director Jim McAneny told Capitolwire any additional changes with cost impacts on the current pension legislation could take until next week for actuaries to produce.