Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf said Tuesday he would veto portions of a budget plan for Pennsylvania that passed the Republican-controlled General Assembly last week. The governor’s action will release six months’ worth of basic education funding so schools will not have to stay closed beyond the Christmas break, as some considered doing because of lack of funds.
While the governor tried to keep the pressure on lawmakers — saying, “The citizens who elected them have to urge them to get back to work. We need to get this done right” — his release of funds did reduce the urgency for a state budget a bit.
Six months’ worth of school funding will last through Thursday. And the release of money due to counties should help agencies that have been struggling to provide social services without state and federal funds. (Absent, unfortunately, are boosts in human services funds that had been proposed by Wolf.)
But our leaders in Harrisburg can’t stay away too long.
Monday should be a work day. And the work should be compromise.
Because Wolf’s OK of $23.3 million in spending — about two-thirds of what he wanted and three-quarters of what Republicans passed — is 182 days late, much damage has been done.
Several counties, led by Bucks County, started withholding tax money they collect for the state. Social service agencies and preschool programs had already or were in danger of having to close or shed workers. Many counties, including Lancaster, borrowed against the money they expect to receive from taxpayers beginning in January.
Lancaster County intends to use its $35 million line of credit “to cover operating expenses due to the fact that state reimbursement will still take some time and tax revenue will not come in on a consistent basis until the end of March,” Commissioner Craig Lehman said in an email Tuesday. The goal, Lehman said, will be to use it in a way so as to pay as little interest as possible.
Wolf accused Republican leaders of having “simply left town before finishing their job. And they left all of us with a real mess.”
Pennsylvania Republican Party Chairman Rob Gleason in turn blamed Wolf for having made a “multibillion dollar mistake” when, in June, he fully vetoed virtually the same budget he partially signed Tuesday. That, Gleason said, “needlessly plunged our school districts and nonprofits into a six-month crisis.”
Related: Republican House leaders' statement
Both parties bear some blame for the failure to compromise.
And despite Tuesday’s release of partial funding, the budget remains a mess. Part of the mess the governor referred to is what he said is a $500 million gap between current state revenues and the $30.8 billion budget he partially vetoed.
Another part of the mess: zero funding in the GOP-passed budget for Pennsylvania’s state-affiliated universities — Penn State, Pitt, Lincoln and Temple. Given the likely impact on those schools’ tuition rates, it’s hard to believe anyone in Harrisburg wanted to do that.
Then there’s the $350 million in K-12 education funding Republican legislative leaders and Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor had agreed to in November. We side with the governor entirely on this matter: Failure to include a boost for public schools will shift the burden to local property taxpayers.
Finally, there’s the mess at the heart of the budget battle: about $1 billion in additional taxes.
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, has said he can get the votes for a tax increase as long as pension reform is part of the deal. The Senate passed a bill — rejected by anti-tax Republicans and all Democrats in the House — that would have put most new state workers and all new school employees into a pension system combining their traditional guaranteed-benefits plan with a private-sector 401(k) plan.
Whether through a sales or income tax increase, or some combination of those and Wolf’s proposed extraction tax on oil and natural gas, increased state revenue will be needed to balance the state’s books and give property owners a break.
With $53 billion in unfunded obligations putting pressure on state and school budgets, pension reform also should be part of the deal.
Everyone should come back to the table Monday, pass a budget that is balanced, responsible and requires no more staff reductions among those who serve the needy and no more local borrowing to make ends meet.