Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Wolf: December budget 'more realistic'

HARRISBURG - Although the months-long impasse over a state budget seems poised to end, a final spending plan probably won't be enacted until December, Gov. Wolf said Monday.

HARRISBURG - Although the months-long impasse over a state budget seems poised to end, a final spending plan probably won't be enacted until December, Gov. Wolf said Monday.

In a radio interview, the governor said he had hoped the deal on the $30 billion budget would be complete by Thanksgiving - as he and legislative leaders said last week - but called "more realistic" the prediction by Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) that a budget will not be finalized until next month.

"We have some work to do," Wolf said on Pittsburgh's KQV-AM.

The sides are still working out details of the agreement they say will boost funding for public schools and provide property tax reductions statewide. On Monday, staff-level negotiations continued behind closed doors, but produced no new clarity on what the budget will look like.

The Democratic governor and the GOP-controlled legislature are pushing for a swift resolution, if only to avoid the risk of seeing their hard-fought deal unravel - a possibility that could grow if a vote is delayed.

Wolf on Monday acknowledged that the centerpiece of the package - a 1.25 percent increase in the sales tax that could generate $2 billion - was not the funding stream he preferred. He wanted an increase in the personal income tax and a new levy on natural gas drilling, he said, but that was not possible due to Republican opposition in the legislature.

"We have a divided government, and this is what looks like can be passed," he said. "We are all going to get a little bit of what we want. ... All of us who support this are going to be upset with some of the things we get, but I think we all recognize we need to move beyond this impasse so that our schools can get funded and our human-service county organizations can get the funds they so desperately need."

The framework under discussion would increase the sales tax from 6 percent to 7.25 percent (and up to 9.25 percent in Philadelphia). The hike would generate about $400 million in new funds for schools, plus $2 billion to reduce local property taxes - although how the money would be distributed remains unclear.

Wolf and the GOP leaders said their tentative plan would also include changes to the state's public pension system and State Store system.

On Monday, a House committee took the first step on one of those concepts, approving in a 14-9 party line vote a measure to privatize the sale of wine and liquor.

The bill was nearly identical to one Wolf vetoed in July - and the Republicans who moved it through the committee acknowledged it will change significantly before having a chance at becoming law.

"It very well may be the case that certain changes might be made later on," said Rep. Chris Ross (R., Chester), chairman of the House Liquor Control Committee.

"We're just wasting our time," said Rep. Paul Costa (D., Allegheny), the top Democrat on the committee. Costa described the bill as a "vehicle" to advance the subject of "some sort of privatization."

The bill calls for closing the roughly 600 state-run wine and liquor stores, a process that officials expect could take between two and four years. Stores would only close once the Liquor Control Board decided that liquor was readily accessible in the area from private retail stores. Assistance would be provided for State Store clerks who would lose their jobs.

Hotels and restaurants could also apply for permits to sell limited amounts of wine and liquor to go. Grocery stores, too, could acquire permits to sell bottles of wine.

The wholesale system would be leased for 10 years, then sold.

Wolf has said he could support some elements of privatization, though not a full transition that would close State Stores.

"We are really far closer to a settlement on this subject than we have ever been in the past," said Ross.

Costa agreed, but reiterated he would not support total closure.

"I would not support anything that impacts our 3,500 employees" in State Stores, he said.

610-313-8114 @MatthewNussbaum

Inquirer staff writer Angela Couloumbis contributed to this article.