Pennsylvania Legislature

PA School Districts Brace For Prolonged State Budget Battle

Aug 26, 2015
AP Photo/Matt Rourke

The school year is soon to begin, and districts across the state of Pennsylvania are faced with a troubling proposition: How do you stay afloat when a very large chunk of your budget is nonexistent?

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Many Pennsylvania public schools are starting the school year with a worried eye toward Harrisburg.

Some are putting off bills. Some plan to borrow money. But Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said Monday he's not sure how much longer the budget impasse can continue before school operations are compromised.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

A tentative proposal from Gov. Tom Wolf to change state pensions isn't sparking much agreement.

The governor has floated a "scenario" under which he would scale back retirement benefits for state and school workers, but top Republicans say the changes don't go far enough.

"It's just not even in the ballpark of what we would think we could acceptably sell to Republican members in the Senate," said Drew Crompton, chief counsel to GOP Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

The engineers of the current state budget impasse are sitting down for another design meeting Wednesday afternoon.

The new fiscal year began July 1. Negotiations between the governor and top lawmakers have been held about once a week since then.

"We had productive discussion," said House Speaker Mike Turzai after a budget confab last month. "We really rolled up our sleeves."

Twenty-four years ago, in late July, Joyce David was running out of patience.

The commonwealth's budget was five weeks late, and David's husband, a state auditor, hadn't received a paycheck in a month.

"The paralysis stems from a potential tax increase," reported The Associated Press in 1991.

State Rep. Susan Helm (R-Dauphin) said she believes many students throughout Pennsylvania experience unfair treatment under municipal laws.

Helm’s House Bill 809 would strike down municipal laws in the state that prohibit people from living somewhere based on their current status as a student.

In a bid to establish a safety net for part of the state’s social safety net, the Rehabilitation and Community Providers Association is urging state lawmakers to offer some help as the budget impasse hits the one-month mark.

The trade group sent letters to lawmakers in mid-July asking them to consider a short-term funding measure and held a press conference in Pittsburgh last week to drum up support. The group has also suggested that the state provide interest-free loans to social service agencies and nonprofits, “similar to what was done for state employees the last time the budget was not passed on time.”

In a state budget stalemate with few compromises, a left-leaning think tank says focusing on property tax relief could prompt some bipartisan agreement.

Gov. Tom Wolf made his pitch to offer property tax relief central to his proposed budget. In May, the state House passed a GOP-crafted proposal with bipartisan backing.

It included the kind of broad-based tax increases Republican leaders now say they can't support. 

The top House Republican says he'll try to override the governor's budget veto if negotiations don't starting yielding consensus.

"We have to look at overriding if we're not going to have a substantive discussion," said House Speaker Mike Turzai, during his appearance at the Harrisburg Press Club luncheon on Monday.

Turzai said an override should be the "goal" of the GOP-controlled Legislature, though he's not sure if such a move would have the votes to pass.

Every 10 years a fight explodes in Harrisburg over how to redraw state House, Senate and U.S. Congressional districts, with Republican and Democratic lawmakers wrangling over what often becomes a map full of oddly shaped districts drawn in an effort to keep one party or the other in power. 

State Rep. Ted Harhai (D-Westmoreland) wants to end the fight by creating a new independent panel to redraw the districts following the decennial U.S. census.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

The political debate over the state budget has hit a lull within the walls of the state Capitol, but it's very much alive on roadside billboards, radio ads, and in mailboxes.

"We're in a messaging war, but that's on both sides," said Sen. John Blake (D-Lackawanna) this week.

GOP ally Americans for Prosperity has radio ads and billboards blasting the governor for trying to raise taxes.

A state House Republican with a reputation for bucking party leaders is trying to loosen up the deadlock that has gripped budget negotiations for weeks.

Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R-Bucks) is offering his own attempt at a compromise state spending plan. It includes a new tax on natural gas drillers and a higher personal income tax — more than the GOP supported in new spending, but less than Gov. Tom Wolf proposed.

AP Photo/Chris Knight

Some see the state Capitol deadlock over a state budget as political dysfunction or theatre. But it's also a social experiment: this is the year Pennsylvanians will see how a court decision ending "payless paydays" affects the budget negotiations.

One week after Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed a GOP budget curtailing the state’s authority to spend money, negotiations over a new plan are at a standstill.

A Tuesday meeting between Republicans and the governor appeared to yield no progress toward the middle on a mix of tax proposals offered by Wolf and opposed by the GOP-controlled Legislature.

William Del Toro is a natural lobbyist. He doesn't like noise or distractions, but in a loud, busy part of the Capitol one morning, he enthusiastically answered questions about job opportunities for people with disabilities.

"I'm going to tell you the truth," said Del Toro, pushing his glasses up. "I don't believe in the word, a disability. I think it's just we're all unique. We think a different way."

Late budgets aren’t the statewide shock they used to be.

Sure, the commonwealth loses the authority to make certain payments. Standoffs in the '70s, '80s and '90s meant thousands of state workers went unpaid. But recent court rulings say the state has to pay its employees’ salaries. Other critical services will have to be funded as well.

“I don’t think people should be terribly panicked or concerned,” said Christopher Craig, chief counsel to the state Treasurer. “It will take quite some for any real impact to be noticeable.”

AP Photo/Chris Knight

The war of rhetoric has begun in earnest in Harrisburg over the state budget. This week, the Republican controlled House and Senate approved a balanced $30 billion budget that was quickly vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf Tuesday.

Wolf, who is a Democrat, said the budget is based on gimmicks and lacks fiscal integrity.

AP Photo/Chris Knight

Pennsylvania's Democratic governor is inviting legislative leaders to meet in his Capitol offices, a day after the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed a state budget he vetoed.

Gov. Tom Wolf said he hopes the Wednesday afternoon meeting will restart negotiations over a spending plan for the fiscal year that has just begun.

AP Photo/Chris Knight

Gov. Tom Wolf has vetoed the entire GOP-crafted budget package sent to him Tuesday.

The governor announced his plans shortly after the bill passed the Republican-controlled Legislature Friday night. He has pointed out that the spending blueprint lacks his top priorities — a new tax on the natural gas industry, for starters. On Tuesday, Wolf said the budget also lacks basic fiscal integrity.

Counties, school districts and other groups that rely on state funding are preparing themselves for a late commonwealth budget, as Gov. Tom Wolf has all but promised to veto a GOP-crafted spending plan expected to land on his desk Tuesday.

A budget deal between the Republican-controlled Legislature and the Democratic Wolf administration could be elusive. That would not stop commonwealth employees from being paid, due to a 2009 court ruling. The commonwealth would also have authority to pay for critical functions, like state prison meals and human services.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Republican majorities in the Pennsylvania House and Senate are expected to send budget legislation today to Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, along with bills to completely change how wine and liquor are sold and to squeeze billions in savings from public sector pensions.

Lindsay Lazarski / Keystone Crossroads

The centerpiece of Gov. Tom Wolf's state budget died its umpteenth death around a negotiating table this week.

Republican legislative leaders emerged from closed-door negotiations with the Democratic Wolf administration to announce that the governor's proposed severance tax on natural gas drillers is a non-negotiable no-go.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

A proposal to end civil asset forfeiture in Pennsylvania has bipartisan backing among state lawmakers.

House and Senate plans would halt a practice that allows law enforcement to seize property from someone accused, but not convicted, of certain crimes.

The Pennsylvania House Health Committee approved a bill aiming to revise the state’s child care benefits so they gradually taper off as a family earns more income on Wednesday.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

A state budget deadline looms at the end of the month, but Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican lawmakers remain divided on a spending plan.

Entities that rely on the state for funding have cautioned about the headaches caused by lengthy budget standoffs. But Wolf says he’s not resigned to a late state budget.

The state Senate is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a proposal to legalize medical marijuana, a move that would send the measure to the House for the second time in two years.

The bill poised for a vote would allow doctors and nurse practitioners to recommend medical marijuana as treatment for more than a dozen ailments, including epilepsy, Crohn's disease and chronic pain.

The state Senate GOP's plan to change to the state's pension system is a heavy political lift that remains untested in the Legislature.

After months of silence on the details of a pension overhaul proposal, Republican leaders are gearing up for a fast and furious week. They expect to receive an actuarial analysis Tuesday on how much their proposed changes could save for the retirement systems' collective $53 billion liability. By the end of the week, they expect to hold a final vote on the bill. The measure would close the traditional pension system to any new workers and ask more of the employees enrolled in it now.

Mary Wilson / WITF

State Senate Republican leaders want to make current state and school employees pay more toward their retirement to help shore up a severely underfunded system.

The same plan would also enroll future state and school employees in a 401(k)-style retirement plan more common in the private sector, closing the state's defined-benefit pension system to new entrants.

State House lawmakers voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to shrink their 203-seat chamber down to 153 posts. Members also passed a plan to take the Senate from 50 to 37 seats.

Similar attempts to shed some seats in the state legislature haven't been successful for the past few years.

Proponents of the changes say the House, in particular, is too big to do its job efficiently. 

Acting Education Secretary Pedro Rivera began his remarks to the Senate Education Committee as he would before a classroom.

“Good morning,” Rivera said, to muffled greetings in return.

“Wow, can I try that again?” said Rivera. “I feel like I’m in front of my students.”

The back-and-forth improved from there. Before the panel voted unanimously to advance Rivera’s name for consideration, multiple lawmakers praised him for being responsive to their questions over the past few months.

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