State lawmakers are heading into the final stretch of June, and for the first time in four years, a budget agreement doesn’t appear to be on the horizon.
Gov. Tom Corbett, who ran for office promising timely state budgets, has said he’ll forgive a late spending plan in return for passage of two other legislative priorities: an overhaul of public pensions and changes to how alcohol is sold in Pennsylvania.
Trouble is, those bills don’t appear to be close to ready for primetime, and the major outlines of a state budget remain unknown to rank-and-file lawmakers of the Republican Party, which controls the House and Senate.
June 30 is the budget deadline written into the state constitution. Staying past that may not make the difference for the governor and his top priorities, said Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Chester).
“I’m not sure that the passage of time will change the view of the body on any of these issues, whether they be the budget – revenues to support the budget – liquor law reform or public pension reform,” Pileggi said.
“Liquor” is an old nickname for a proposal that no longer resembles any change to how spirits are sold in Pennsylvania. The plans in play now would loosen some of the rules for selling beer and wine. Senate Republicans are having a hard time finding the votes to pass even those. Some have stopped counting votes and started counting rosary beads.
“I’m Roman Catholic and I believe in miracles and so here in the next days a miracle can happen,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson). “Things can come together.”
In the House, Republicans are still discussing a plan to largely reduce retirement benefits for state and school workers. One member said leaders haven’t even taken a straw vote yet.
Democrats do not appear remotely willing to put up votes for either proposal.
Meanwhile, legislative leaders are having language drafted on a variety of tax increases to help fill a $1.4 billion budget hole. But the Corbett administration has said those won’t be discussed until lawmakers pass pension and alcohol bills.
Some have criticized the governor for being elusive about his plan to close the gaping budget deficit.
“If you going to negotiate, you need to start out with, well what is it you specifically want?” said Rep. Dwight Evans (D-Philadelphia).
At a recent news conference, Corbett said he won’t “talk about revenue” yet. But his budget secretary said tax increases, including a new levy on natural gas extraction, cannot be ruled out.
Evans calls that “being cute.”
“You either ask or not,” Evans said. “The governor needs to say it.”
Corbett’s readiness to abandon his on-time budget promise doesn’t sit particularly well with lawmakers of his own party.
“I think Republicans in general think we should get it done,” said Rep. Kate Harper (R-Montgomery). “Personally, I like to get budgets done on time.”
But many who work under the Capitol dome – lawmakers and staff – say a lot of work remains on the budget itself. Without an agreed-upon “final spend” figure, let alone what taxes will allow it, every line item could represent a very hard decision.
“I’ve never seen it like this,” said Rep. Scott Petri (R-Bucks). “It’s like last year, but it’s worse.”