Gov. Tom Wolf and leaders from the four legislative caucuses gathered in the governor’s office Wednesday for what seems to be a rarity these days: five-party budget negotiations.
The goal of the meeting was reportedly to find a way forward on how to finish the FY 2015-2016 budget.
While some may see it as a positive advance that the parties are sitting down together at all, Wednesday’s meeting left little in terms of real progress in finding a path forward on finishing the current fiscal year’s spending plan with both sides still at odds over what a final spend number should look like.
“I think we amplified our desire to finish the 15-16 budget, the last 13 percent, and then we can move on to fighting a lot of these battles in the next year ahead, but let’s get the final money out to the schools and the prisons and the nursing homes and we can move forward with all the other items that folks want to have on the table,” said House Majority Leader Dave Reed (R-Indiana).
The way forward, according to Rep. Reed and the House Republican caucus seems to having a final year spend plan that is around the $30.2 billion number that Gov. Wolf partially vetoed back in late December.
“I understand that’s not ideal from the governor’s perspective, but we’ll hold pension reform and liquor reform and make that part of next year’s discussion as well, but let’s just finish up this last ten percent of the budget and we’ll move on to other issues,” he said.
Legislative Democratic leadership expressed concern about moving forward in that direction, particularly given an recent report by the Independent Fiscal Office stating the Commonwealth will have a nearly $460 million deficit in the current fiscal year at those spending levels and an over $2 billion deficit for FY 2016-2017.
“The people of Pennsylvania can’t sit by and ignore that we have this structural problem, otherwise we are looking at devastating cuts going forward in the areas most important to people: education, human services, and economic development,” said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny). “Somehow revenue has to be part of the equation, that’s a fact, I’m not making it up. These numbers tell that story.”
House Minority Leader Frank Dermody (D-Allegheny) said his caucus—and what he said was the sentiment expressed by the governor— is for a budget that adequately funds education and takes care of human services.
“Our preference is, and what I think is best for the people of Pennsylvania, public education, human services, and a deficit we have to face this year and next year, the $30.8 billion is where we ought to be on a spend number and I don’t know whether that’s achievable or not,” he said.
He said going forward, Appropriations Committee staff will be running numbers, looking at the various proposals and potential adjustments to see what can be done to get Pennsylvania to the next fiscal year.
Referencing the IFO report, he said “there’s not $2.7 billion worth of cuts in this budget.”
“We’ve got to raise revenues to solve this issue,” he said.
With the governor’s budget address slated for February 9th, both chambers of the General Assembly have recessed until February 8th.