Wednesday, March 23, 2016
Pennsylvania's long state budget nightmare is over.
Gov. Tom Wolf announced Wednesday that he will let a Republican-backed, $7 billion budget closure package take effect without his signature, effectively bringing a truce to a nine-month fiscal and policy war.
That truce will be short-lived, though.
The governor and state lawmakers will have to have a new budget - one in which the governor is seeking election-year tax increases to balance - in place by July 1 for fiscal 2016-17.
But today's action averts a number of potential crisis points around the state, from schools that have threatened to close their doors early to Penn State's planning for the closure of statewide agricultural extension services.
Wolf said he would sign the bills because he is still not personally convinced they represent honest budgeting. But he said he can manage future shortfalls, should they occur, by imposing spending freezes in various line items.
Thursday's announcement was a significant about-face by Wolf, who last week threatened a full veto of the GOP-authored package that he criticized as continuing a pattern of "smoke and mirrors"budgeting.
Wolf was left with dwindling options in recent days, however, as it was becoming increasingly unclear whether his Democratic allies in the House and Senate would be able to sustain such a veto.
Even public school leaders that Wolf has been woking to help have called in recent days for the governor to concentrate on fiscal 2016-17.
Wolf sidestepped questions about the political pressure at his Capitol press conference, saying only that "I think, overwhelmingly, people wanted to do the right thing, and that's what I'm responding to."
It was also becoming clear that, in late March, there was little practical effect to continuing the fight for new program funds that very likely couldn't be spent in this fiscal year.
Republicans, meanwhile, have argued that their plan, which would close out the current fiscal year at just over $30 billion, makes sense on a lot of levels.
It contains a $200 million increase in direct aid to public schools, albeit $175 million less than Wolf had wanted; it holds all taxes at current levels; and it increases state aid to Penn State, Pitt and Temple.
The Democratic governor and the Republican-controlled General Assembly have been locked in Washington-style partisan gridlock for this entire budget year, which started July 1.
State government has operated so far on a combination of Treasury waivers permitting the nuts and bolts state operations to continue without a budget, and, more recently, a partial budget that routed some dollars to cash-starved schools and human service providers.
The battle has pivoted primarily on two poles:
* Wolf's aggressive demands for school funding and other spending increases, much of which the governor argues is simply a matter of accounting fixes needed to put the state's fiscal house in order. Wolf has said he expects the current course to lead to a $2 billion gap between income and expenses in 2016-17.
* Conservative Republicans' aversion to anything approaching the large tax increases that would be needed to achieve Wolf's goals.
Wolf has proposed an increase in the state personal income tax from 3.07 percent to 3.4 percent retroactive to Jan. 1, 2016, as well as extending the state's 6 percent sales tax to cable television services and a $1-per-pack hike in cigarette taxes.
Wolf was insisting, until today, on something closer to the $30.8 billion spending plan that he had agreed to with legislative leaders in December, before fiscal conservatives in the House effectively killed it.
Wolf has argued that's the honest number needed to fund a state government that's been running for too long on one-time transfers and other accounting maneuvers.
But the budget closure plan's supporters have called the current package as good as lawmakers and Wolf can get at this late point in the fiscal year.
They have also argued it will help 2016-17 negotiations because all sides will start from a base spending number that's about $700 million lower.
It now looks as if they've won this round.
Tuesday, March 15, 2016
Districts consider closing schools as money runs out
Published: March 14, 2016
Area school districts are preparing plans to address running out of money and could close schools in May, weeks before most are scheduled to close for the summer.
State funds due to school districts have not been released because of the ongoing state budget impasse.
Last Thursday, the Greater Nanticoke and Hanover area school boards voted to give administrators the authority to take action in response to the state’s failure to adopt a budget for the fiscal year that began last July.
The Wyoming Valley West School Board could vote today to give employees 60 days notice that schools will close. The Pittston Area School Board is expected to address the budget crisis at tonight’s meeting.
Informational meetings for taxpayers and parents are scheduled to take place in the Wyoming Valley West School District at 7 p.m. tonight and in the Wyoming Area School District at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
Tonight’s Wyoming Valley West meeting is at the middle school in Kingston. The Hanover Area School District is hosting a meeting for “all stakeholders of district in Luzerne County” in its high school auditorium at 6:30 p.m. this Monday, Hanover Area Superintendent Andrew Kuhl said in a letter posted on the district’s website.
“There is fear that school districts will not be able to continue operations,” the Wyoming Area School District said in a release about Wednesday’s meeting at the secondary center cafeteria. “The consequences grow serious as many are depleting savings, making cuts and holding off on purchases and payments, or borrowing to meet expenses.”
In January, school districts received about six months worth of 2015-16 funding from the state after Gov. Tom Wolf unlocked emergency funding to school districts with partial vetoes of a $30.3 billion budget from the Republican-controlled state legislature.
“Our goal is to provide uninterrupted, full service to the students of Hanover Area School District. Unfortunately this may not be possible,” Kuhl said.
At the Wilkes-Barre Area School Board meeting on Monday, board member Christine Katsock urged district residents to contact state legislators.
“Apply the heat, ladies and gentlemen, because we are in dire straits,” Katsock said.
Wilkes-Barre Area Superintendent Bernard Prevuznak said he is meeting with district teachers and employees on Wednesday to discuss the budget situation.
“Teachers may not get a paycheck,” he said.
The district will run out of money in mid-May without state funding and then will have to decide whether to close schools or borrow money, Prevuznak said.
“This is an apocalyptic crisis,” he said. “We need your help. We need to come together as a district.”
Dallas Business Manager Grant Palfey said he has been getting a lot of questions about whether the district will end the school year early, like other local districts are considering.
“We’re not in that boat, thank goodness,” he said.
Although Dallas can make it through the rest of the school year, Palfey said the district has a $1.1 million budget deficit to deal with, and committees are looking at ways to cut costs or otherwise get hold of the money.
The Greater Nanticoke Area School District will start paying bills from its reserve fund in the next few weeks, Superintendent Ronald Grevera said.
“With that stated, with no end to the impasse in sight, we will need to cease operations at the end of May,” Grevera said, adding the district will need to give employees 60 days notice that the district will close.
In a how-to memo on closing a school district for lack of funds, the state Department of Education mentioned providing 60 days notice to employees, Kuhl said.
The notice is a requirement in the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN Act), but it may not apply to a school district that has run out of money, he said. The act is often associated with mass layoffs from plant closings.
Monday, March 14, 2016
Tuesday, March 1, 2016
Area officials: Threat of school closings may be only way to end state budget battle
Officials say budget impasse needs impetus
Times Leader by Mark Guydish - firstname.lastname@example.org First Posted: 11:43 pm - February 29th, 2016 Updated: 12:46 am - March 1st, 2016.
KINGSTON — During an emotionally-charged exchange that often evoked unguarded passion from area legislators and school district officials, state Rep. Tarah Toohil summed the fear that kept rising to the top: Schools running out of money and closing. “When the kids are supposed to be graduating and the school is not even functioning for them to graduate, that’s when the pressure will come,” the Butler Township Republican said during a Monday evening roundtable in Kingston regarding the eight-month budget impasse. “That’s when you’ll have the budget you need. But it really is a travesty that it’s going to take the ultimate pressure.” The Luzerne Intermediate Unit, which provides various services to area schools, hosted the roundtable that drew superintendents, business managers and school board members from area districts, along with Toohil and state Reps. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilkes-Barre, Mike Carrol, D-Avoca, Gerald Mullery, D-Newport Township, and Aaron Kaufer, R-Kingston.