HARRISBURG — With hours to spare before the deadline, the Republican-controlled legislature on Friday approved a new budget for Pennsylvania, but one missing a critical piece: a plan for how to pay for it.
Both the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed a nearly $32 billion spending bill that would increase funding for public schools, early childhood and special education, and services for the intellectually disabled.
Though legislative leaders have said they will work over the weekend to finalize details for a revenue plan, the Senate is not expected to be in session. House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) told his chamber after Friday's vote that it will likely not convene again before Thursday.
When legislators do return, they are facing a heavy lift: Wolf and the two chambers must figure out how to raise more than $2 billion to cover a projected shortfall in the 2016-17 fiscal year and the new one that starts Saturday.
Negotiators have been haggling for weeks on this very question. Republicans who control both chambers have repeatedly rejected Wolf's proposals over the last three years to raise the personal income or sales tax, or impose a new tax on natural gas extraction. But they have struggled to cobble together other ways to raise a substantial amount of money.
This year, they are again discussing expanding gambling, including legalizing online gambling. But that plan has been bogged down by fighting over whether to allow up to 40,000 video gaming terminals — essentially slots-like machines — in bars, taverns and other establishments with a liquor license.
Senate Republicans and Wolf have also said there are serious discussions around the concept of borrowing to pay for a portion or all of this year's budget shortfall.
House Republicans have studiously avoided saying whether they support that idea.
Given the divide, several legislators on Friday said it was a bad idea to approve a spending plan without an agreement on revenue.
"We shouldn't spend money we don't have," said Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler) during the House floor debate. "We shouldn't spend money that we don't know how we're going to find it, and we don't have a plan to generate it yet."
Sen. Scott Wagner (R., York) echoed the sentiment.
"We have a monster here in Harrisburg," Wagner, a fiscal conservative who is running for governor, said of state government during Friday's debate on the Senate floor. "And every year, the monster is hungrier … and every year, we keep feeding the monster."
The $31.99 billion spending plan would increase funding for K-12 education by $100 million – the amount Wolf proposed earlier this year.
It would also increase special education by $25 million and give an additional $30 million for early childhood education. Funding for state-related universities such as Temple, Pittsburgh, and Lincoln would remain flat, whereas the legislature gave itself a budget increase of nearly 5 percent.
The spending bill also includes a planned merger of the Department of Corrections and the Board of Probation and Parole, as well as savings from a proposed merger of the Departments of Health and Human Services, according to House Republicans.
One large reduction — $353 million — would come from finding savings in the state's vast Medicaid program that covers hospital and medical care.
Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott said the administration agreed to the reduction as part of the compromise and will work with the DHS to find the savings.
Speaking on the Senate floor Friday, Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) urged his colleagues to support the spending plan.
"This budget's not perfect, and it's certainly easy to find reasons to vote no, like any budget," he said. "But like any good budget, it's a compromise, it deals with how we get to tomorrow. But this legislature's doing it in a way that looks down the road as well, and I think it's a budget that is very worthy of support."
Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.) said the spending plan is not all that is needed to address problems in Pennsylvania communities, but he called it "a step forward."