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GOP budget passes, but Pa. stalemate remains

HARRISBURG - With the Wolf administration and the Republican-controlled legislature hurtling toward a budget impasse - and, likely, a partial state government shutdown - the question is: Will anyone notice?

HARRISBURG - With the Wolf administration and the Republican-controlled legislature hurtling toward a budget impasse - and, likely, a partial state government shutdown - the question is: Will anyone notice?

Gov. Wolf late last week said he intends to veto the alternative budget being sent to him by Republicans, who on Saturday passed their $30.1 billion spending plan after a two-hour debate.

The 112-77 vote was along strict partisan lines. The budget now heads to the Senate, where a vote is expected early in the workweek.

A veto by Wolf would mean the state likely will miss the July 1 deadline to enact a state budget and, in theory, lose some of its authority to spend money.

Reality is far less dramatic, at least in the short term.

"Obviously, pain will be felt, but we will try to operate as close as business as usual as we can to mitigate any unfortunate circumstances that do arise," said Randy Albright, Wolf's budget secretary.

Administration officials and legislative aides say the state can continue to operate without a budget - and without noticeable interruption to state services - for at least several weeks.

State workers will continue to receive paychecks and provide most state services if they report to work, thanks to a court decision that grew out of the last major budget impasse in Pennsylvania in 2009, when Ed Rendell was governor.

And the state can pay most of its bills, drawing on revenue from the current fiscal year, at least for a few weeks after the deadline.

That picture can change dramatically the longer a stalemate lasts.

In 2009 under Rendell, the impasse dragged on for 101 days, nearly paralyzing nonprofits that rely on state aid and provide services ranging from child care to adult literacy classes to homeless and mental health services. Some of those providers drew down on cash reserves or took out personal loans to stay open; others were forced to lay off employees and turn away people seeking their services.

Local governments, through which state funds flow, also felt the pinch, temporarily closing libraries and borrowing money from banks to keep other services flowing.

The 2009 scenario, however, was different from the one playing out this year.

That court ruling requiring that state employees be paid in the event of a missed budget deadline has taken some of the pressure off.

And the legislature has reserves to continue operating for several months postdeadline, although the House, and specifically House Republicans, have more financial breathing room than their Senate colleagues.

In 2009, there was no veto of the budget, as Wolf has threatened. Rendell and the legislature used a so-called stopgap plan to keep state operations flowing and employees paid while fighting over funding for social services and school subsidies that almost crippled the nonprofits.

"We have no immediate track record with a total veto," said pollster and political analyst G. Terry Madonna. "It's what gives me pause."

Albright said last week that the general guideline was that the state must continue to fund services that affect the health, safety, and welfare of residents - medical assistance payments for the poor, corrections facilities, veterans homes, and nursing homes run by the state.

But after a few weeks, state vendors likely would stop being paid, although Albright said many have contracts requiring them to continue working even if they were not getting paid, and will be eventually reimbursed.

By late August, school districts would be left in a financial bind as they are starting the new school year, as that is when the state sends over a big installment of aid.

And although state employees who come to work have to be paid, no one in the administration is saying whether it would appeal to workers to stay home if the impasse is protracted.

That would be the point, said Madonna, where the political stalemate in the Capitol would spill out to the outside world - and elected officials would be held accountable.

"We are not yet at a point of a crisis," said Madonna, "but ultimately, it filters down to the voters, and that's when the rubber hits the road."

Wolf so far has not said whether he will use a full or partial veto on the $30.1 billion spending plan being sent to him by the GOP-controlled legislature.

That budget would provide substantially smaller funding bumps for public education than what Wolf is seeking, and steers clear from the governor's proposal to raise the state's personal-income and sales taxes to finance a massive property-tax relief plan statewide.

House Democrats on Saturday railed against the GOP, accusing their Republican colleagues of drawing up a budget that relies on faulty assumptions and allots insufficient funds for public schools.

"The budget before us is a sham," said Rep. Mary Jo Daley (D., Montgomery), who urged continued negotiations on an alternative. "Let's leave the theatrics behind and work together."

Rep. W. Curtis Thomas (D., Philadelphia) said: "We cannot continue to ask children to give Cadillac performance if we give them Volkswagen dollars."

Still, few across the Capitol seemed surprised that the process was barreling toward a stalemate. By late last week, it had become clear that Wolf and Republicans had accepted there will be no budget by July 1.

Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Philadelphia) put it this way: "Ray Charles could've seen this coming."