The Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed its own budget plan on Dec. 8 then saw it gutted and amended by the Senate. The plan passed the House by a 115-86 vote. No Democrats supported it.
The $30.3 billion Republican-backed plan called for increases in the cigarette tax and new revenue from Internet gaming. But it abandoned most of the concepts in a more costly proposal that has bipartisan support from the Senate and from Gov. Wolf, and it included far less than the $350 million in new schools funding the governor had sought.
Even after it was effectively quashed, House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny continued to tout his chamber’s proposal, saying the Senate plan appeared too expensive.
“I have not seen the Senate’s tax package,” he told reporters, before cutting short questions and walking from the room. “Where are the votes, and where are the taxes coming from?”
Turzai was even less talkative about the prospect for a conference committee – he refused to answer questions about what happens now that HB1460 is, essentially, the framework budget, other than to question what revenues exist to pay for the $30.8 billion in spending.
The Senate began passing pieces of that agreement this week, though without resolving key aspects, including which taxes will be raised to pay for it.
As Capital Watch goes to press, rank-and-file House Republicans have signaled they won’t support tax increases to fund the framework budget, leading them to pitch their $30.3 billion plan – similar to one Gov. Wolf vetoed in June.
Rep. Bill Adolph, R-Delaware, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, described the deal as “the art of possible.”
“At the end of this game, we have to move forward to bring this standoff to a close,” he said.
High-ranking Democrats, however, decried the vote as a partisan and fruitless maneuver with little discernible value.
“This is just prolonging the budget impasse,” said Rep. Joseph Markosek, D-Allegheny, minority chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
No one seemed certain what would happen next.
The Senate appeared poised to draft and vote on a liquor-reform bill proposed under the framework. For a budget to be completed, they also have to begin moving a tax bill that specifies how to fund the spending plan.
The state has been without a budget since July 1.
Frank Dermody, a top House Democrat, predicted on the floor that lawmakers might still be debating the budget on Jan. 1.
The Senate Appropriations Committee gutted HB1460 and inserted the $30.8 billion framework General Appropriations language, which was approved by the chamber on Dec. 7, with a bi-partisan 43-7 vote.
“The plan is to advance our proposal that we had done several days ago back to the House,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Majority Chairman Pat Browne, R-Lehigh on Dec. 8.
“It’s a proposal we still believe is agreed-to – we came to an accommodation on the framework and built an Appropriations Act based on our original agreement, what we believe is a reasonable consensus, between the parties in this chamber and the governor and members of the House, towards closing our financial obligations for this current year.
“So we’re going to continue to work through that.”
As Capital Watch goes to print, it appears that the Senate plans to send the revised HB1460 back to the House, setting that chamber’s majority Republicans up for an interesting decision: choose to insist on their $30.3 billion GA bill language – setting up a potential conference committee situation – or concur with the framework’s $30.8 billion GA bill language and, for all intents and purposes, begin the end of the more than five-month-old budget impasse.
House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin said the caucus has not discussed the possibility of a conference committee. When pressed on whether the House might consider such an option, all Miskin would say is, “We will see.”
On Dec. 7, responding to a question about the potential for a conference committee, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, was hopeful things wouldn’t go that far.
“You know what, I served on the last budget conference committee and I don’t want to go in that direction …” Corman said, chuckling. “If we can avoid it.”
The last time the budget went to a conference committee was in 2009 – it took a few more months before what was ultimately a 101-day impasse was ended – although it was a more regular occurrence prior to the last time it happened in 2009, and usually with quicker results.
When asked if he thought the current budget disagreement would go to a conference committee, Corman said, “No.” The question came up again on Dec. 8, and Browne, following his committee’s gutting of HB1460, said he didn’t think it would trigger a conference committee “at this point in time – no, no plan for a conference committee.”
The Senate Republican leaders’ confidence might be due to the conference committee process, to a point … and the fear of further delays to getting a finalized budget.