Could latest Pa. budget plan be as good as it gets?
Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, has not endorsed the plan, but Republicans who control the Senate sent strong signals Wednesday that it may be what ultimately ends up being the solution to the state's nearly four-month-long budget stalemate.
HARRISBURG – In the Pennsylvania Capitol on Wednesday, there was a sense that this may be as good as it gets.
This is the latest revenue plan to pay for the state's $32 billion budget to emerge late Tuesday from the GOP-controlled House. It centers on borrowing $1.5 billion, expanding gambling, siphoning money from some special state funds and forcing online retailers to collect and submit sales taxes.
Gov. Wolf, a Democrat who has called for new, steady revenue sources to deal with chronic deficit problems, has not endorsed the plan. But Republicans who control the Senate sent strong signals Wednesday that it may end up being the solution to a nearly four-month-long budget stalemate.
"We're sort of in desperate times right now," said Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre).
Among the funding stuck in limbo is $600 million for the state-related universities — Temple, Pittsburgh, Lincoln, and Pennsylvania State.
Corman on Tuesday noted that the revenue proposal cleared a major legislative hurdle Tuesday night when the House narrowly approved it, 102-88. Though Republican members who dominate the Senate have concerns over the amount of borrowing and the lack of recurring revenue, Corman said, they will seriously consider the proposal.
"It's not what we would vote," said Corman, "but [we] understand this needs to get done."
The House was scheduled to continue voting on budget-related bills early Wednesday evening, according to staffers.
Despite all the voting activity it is still not clear whether the latest developments, after months of stops and starts, will bring a balanced budget and end the standoff.
Earlier this month, Wolf said he was fed up with waiting for the legislature to act on a revenue plan, and declared his administration would take the reins and manage the budget, which is saddled with a $2.2 billion deficit. Among other measures, the governor said he would borrow more than $1 billion against the state's liquor revenues.
He also reiterated his call for a new tax on natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, an idea that has been pushed hard by Democrats and moderate Republicans for years with no traction.
On Wednesday, however, a key House committee passed a bill to do just that. The bill, authored by Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R., Bucks), would impose a volume tax that rises with the price of natural gas. The state currently charges a per-well "impact fee."
The measure passed out of committee in a 16-9 vote, with six Republicans joining Democrats to support it as gas-industry lobbyists looked on silently.
In a statement later in the day, Marcellus Shale Coalition president David Spigelmyer wrote: "Despite what some continue to suggest, our industry pays huge amounts of taxes, including an impact tax that's generated more than $1.2 billion in revenue, benefiting every single county in the Commonwealth. Make no mistake, even higher energy taxes will harm local jobs and leave consumers paying more for the energy they need."
DiGirolamo said the new tax, which could come up for a preliminary vote on the House floor as early as next week, would raise between $200 million and $250 million in this fiscal year.
"It's been almost 10 years that we've been talking about this," DiGirolamo said. "We still have a ways to go … I'm just very excited."