Legislative Republicans were chastised and lectured several times by Gov. Tom Wolf during his budget address to a joint session of the General Assembly on Feb. 9.
Wolf’s budget address came more than seven months into a fiscal year that still hasn’t resulted in an agreement on his first budget.
Wolf called the $33.2 billion budget he proposed a “crisis” budget, meaning if legislators don’t do what ask he suggests, the state is headed for disaster, and very soon.
“… if you won’t face up to the reality of the situation we’re in … if you ignore that time bomb ticking … if you won’t take seriously your responsibility to the people of Pennsylvania – then find another job,” said Wolf.
“I was ready, pen in hand,” said Wolf of his hope back in December that the $30.8 billion “framework” budget would end up on his desk. “And then House Republican leaders just…walked away.”
“They walked away from the table and went home for the holidays without holding that final vote,” Wolf said. “They still have not held that final vote.”
That drew boos and other remarks from several Republicans in attendance, to which Wolf, going off speech, responded: “Listen, I understand the frustration you all must feel looking at this huge mathematical problem … but yelling will not make it go away. Wishing will not make it go away. We need to do what’s right for the people of Pennsylvania.”
Those off-the-cuff remarks got lots of applause from legislative Democrats in the room, and positive post-address Democratic reactions, but it definitely didn’t score points with the majority party in both chambers of the Legislature.
“The governor told the truth to the people of Pennsylvania and the General Assembly, and we needed to hear it,” said House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, echoing Wolf’s concerns about the structural deficit.
“We need to do our job, and I think that’s what he was getting at,” Dermody said.
“I applaud the governor for being very direct and communicating to not only the General Assembly, but to the people of Pennsylvania, we have a pretty serious fiscal crisis in Pennsylvania that needs to be addressed,” said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny.
Both Dermody and Costa said lawmakers need to start making the tough decisions they, and Wolf, argue the Legislature under GOP leadership has been avoiding.
Some GOP leaders said Wolf’s remarks were both shameful and not as grounded in reality as the governor claimed. Some even suggested Wolf speech was intended to drive the GOP further away from him regarding the budget in hopes of capitalizing on the “crisis” in the upcoming November elections.
Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, following the address, offered no praise for Wolf.
“Clearly liberalism is alive and well in the Wolf administration. I mean a massive tax-and-spend budget built upon a pile of rubble left from the last huge tax-and-spend proposal this governor put in place,” said Scarnati.
“I was hoping he was going to come back from Fantasyland, instead he left for Neverland,” said House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, during a separate post-address event held by the House GOP.
“And until he returns to the realities of the challenges facing the people of this state, we’re going to continue to confront these challenges head on, because we are not going to rubberstamp $3.6 billion in higher taxes for $3 billion in higher spending and ignore all the other issues that are priorities for the people across this entire commonwealth in the past and in the future,” added Reed.
“This was, without question, the most absurd, politically-motivated remarks I’ve seen from a governor in the well of the House,” said Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, noting it was the 18th budget address he’s attended as a state senator.
“This proposal and that speech have no intention of getting anything accomplished, other than divide us further,” Corman said, who also hit on the same tax-and-spend criticism voiced by Reed, and argued Wolf is as much to blame for the failure of the “framework” budget as anyone, since he didn’t push House Democrats to put up votes for the proposal. Corman also noted House Democrats backed off of forcing some floor votes on the $30.8 billion framework budget.
“I don’t know where he thinks we go from here. I don’t know how he thinks that gets him votes in either [GOP] caucus. My guess is today we are further away [from any budget] than we were June of last year. And my guess is that’s what the governor wants. He wants a fight. He wants to take this to the campaign [for House and Senate seats],” said Corman.
Both Costa and Dermody, when asked about Corman’s claims that Wolf wants to use this for Democratic political gain, said the governor just wants to get a budget done and put Pennsylvania on a better path.
But GOP leaders in both chambers claimed loading everyday Pennsylvanians up with new and higher taxes isn’t a way to chart a course to a brighter future, even with concerns about a structural deficit.
“Hard-working people want to keep more of their money to spend on their kid’s education for college, on a family vacation, on a rainy day fund for themselves, maybe a new washer and a dryer, these are good, solid, honest and hard-working people,” said House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny. “And with all due respect, I think the governor is out of touch with those folks. I don’t think he’s out and about like we are.
“I think it’s easy to live off of Mount Wolf or Rittenhouse Square and not know what people are doing in everyday lives. I think it’s easy to lecture, and scold and to act like you know better and be an elitist. But come and see what real people are doing in everyday lives,” said Turzai.
During his speech, Wolf laid out his view of the “crisis” facing Pennsylvania, arguing it’s not his opinion, it’s simple fact based upon the state’s current budgetary math.
“… I want to be clear – with each member of the General Assembly, and with every Pennsylvanian – about the actions we must take to resolve this crisis, and the consequences we will all face if we don’t,” said Wolf.
“Please understand: We are not talking about a long-term budget projection,” Wolf later said. “We are talking about Pennsylvania failing to meet its basic obligations – this year. We are talking about pain that will be felt across our Commonwealth. This year.”
“Pennsylvania now faces a $2 billion budget deficit,” Wolf told lawmakers. “That’s not a Democratic fact or a Republican fact. It’s just a fact.”
The state Independent Fiscal Office late last month projected a slightly smaller potential structural deficit – nearly $1.9 billion – for the 2016-17 fiscal year.
The IFO’s projections are based on a fully-implemented House Bill 1460, which the IFO says would spend $30.2 billion. That appropriations bill was partially vetoed by Wolf on Dec. 29, with the governor whittling that legislation down to closer to $24.3 billion with his blue pen. The IFO also noted HB1460, without any new revenues, would come up $318 million short of necessary revenues by the end of the current fiscal year. If recurring revenues could be found to balance HB1460’s $30.2 billion in spending, the structural deficit projected by the IFO for FY2016-17 would likely be closer to $1.3 billion.
“This deficit isn’t just a cloud hanging over Pennsylvania’s long-term future. It is a time bomb, ticking away, right now, even as I speak,” said Wolf. “If it explodes – if the people in this chamber allow it to explode – then Pennsylvania will experience a fiscal catastrophe the likes of which we have never seen.
“If the General Assembly does not approve a responsible plan to solve this crisis, every Pennsylvanian will suffer the consequences. Those consequences will be real. They will be immediate. They will be severe.”
Wolf said failing to address the deficit and invest in the state’s future will result in slashed funding to the state’s schools and universities, cuts to necessary human services, increased local property taxes, impaired job growth, and added costs to the Commonwealth’s ability to borrow money.
Senate Appropriations Majority Chairman Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, said the assumptions employed by the Wolf administration to develop their estimate of the structural deficit do not match those used by the Senate GOP, which doesn’t believe the deficit is nearly as large.
“Remember, a short term deficit is based on what you want to spend, not what you have to spend,” added Corman, again noting the significant increase in spending – $3 billion more than what’s included in the $30.2 billion budget partially signed by the governor – proposed by Wolf. “He’s [Wolf] basing his numbers on what he wants to spend.”
Budget Secretary Randy Albright did note that even if all of Wolf’s proposals are adopted, more work will be necessary to control growing government costs as a structural deficit is projected to return in the 2017-18 fiscal year.
However for the coming fiscal year, to address the projected deficit and to increase specific areas of spending – most notably education – the governor has proposed $2.72 billion in new or increased taxes.