On March 16, the General Assembly sent Gov. Tom Wolf revised budget bills, but as Capital Watch goes to press, it’s unclear if he will veto the legislation as promised and whether Republicans will band together and override the Governor’s veto.
Several members of the Senate Democratic Caucus are prepared to vote with Republicans to override Wolf’s veto if the governor can’t make good on a promise he made to them, Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, said following the Senate’s votes on a revised Fiscal Year 2015-16 budget, House Bill 1801, and a Fiscal Code bill, House Bill 1327, to implement that revised plan.
Boscola said Wolf has promised he will not allow a public school to close due to lack of funds. It appears that promise was made in the days since a meeting between legislative Democrats and Wolf at the Governor’s Residence on March 14.
“How do you do that? I don’t know how you do that?” she said. However the promise looks to have been enough to get all but one Senate Democrat to vote against the budget bill. Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-Chester, voted for the bill which would have the state spend $30.031 billion during the current fiscal year without the need to raise additional revenues.
But Boscola said the current budget situation is “wearing thin” with several members of the caucus, and she suggested trust in Wolf has eroded for some within the caucus.
It’s unclear if House Democrats were offered that same assurance, according to what House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, told Capitolwire in between the House’s consideration of the non-preferred appropriations for Pennsylvania’s state-related universities and consideration of other budget bills approved earlier in the day by the Senate.
“I don’t know. It may have been another conversation. I didn’t necessarily hear that – he may have said it – but I don’t think I heard that,” said Dermody.
According to Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan, such an assurance was not given during the March 14 meeting. In fact, it was just the opposite.
“From what I understand from the people on our staff who were there, he was asked about schools closing and his response was that schools are going to close,” said Sheridan. “If we do not get a final budget that does the things he’s been fighting for, schools are going to close soon.”
“If we accept what the Republicans are sending us, schools are going to close soon – if there’s not an actual long-term fix, school are going to close, that was what he was saying,” continued Sheridan.
“I do not know of any particular school district that is in danger of imminent closure, but if they do not have adequate funding, schools will close,” Sheridan said.
The Pennsylvania School Boards Association doesn’t have any solid data regarding potential school closures, but PSBA spokesman Steve Robinson said by the end of April, some districts “will have their hands forced” regarding the closure process without additional funding released by the state.
One of the House Democrats who voted with Republicans in favor of the budget the March 14 meeting with the governor did not provide members with a resolution to their school district concerns.
“I was dissatisfied with the results of the meeting on March 14 for a multitude of reasons,” said Rep. Gerald Mullery, D-Luzerne. “The main reason I was dissatisfied with the meeting was I had hoped going in we would come out with a clear plan for the path forward, and in my opinion – speaking solely for myself – we didn’t have that, and that was truly discouraging to me.”
When asked if he was the only one at the meeting who was displeased with the outcome, Mullery said, “I don’t believe so.”
Mullery said he has spoken at length with the schools in his legislative district, and the superintendents of those schools all said they could live with what HB1801 provided. One of those districts, Hanover Area School District, could be forced to make some tough decisions by mid-April, said Mullery.
Dermody also claimed the governor has offered, to legislative Republicans, to approve supplemental funding to help schools avoid closing, as well as address other issues like the Penn State Agricultural Extension Program, which is in the process of planning for approximately 1,100 layoffs due to a lack of funding.
“It would keep the schools open for a period of time, it would avoid the layoffs at the Penn State agricultural extension program, the Department of Agriculture, the 4-H clubs … so we can put out some of these fires while we negotiate a real budget to clear up 15-16 the way it should be,” said Dermody.
In return, the GOP had to promise not to run their revised budget bill and begin to negotiate on the FY2016-17 budget with new recurring revenue, Dermody said.
However, the “deal” Dermody explained wasn’t exactly a deal put before GOP leaders, according to Sheridan.
“The governor did truly reach out to them during the last couple of days,” said Sheridan, but then added, “I’m not sure there was a deal offered – it was just a lot of ideas being discussed.”
“I’m not sure about that, I know a lot was discussed,” Sheridan said.
Dermody acknowledged it’s getting more difficult for his caucus members to vote against funding for schools in the face of the growing threat of school closures.
His acknowledgment was illustrated by the 13 House Democrats who joined House Republicans in sending a budget bill and a Fiscal Code bill to Wolf. Earlier in the day, an overwhelming number of House members – Republican and Democrat – approved the non-preferred appropriations.
That’s not necessarily an indication House Democrats will provide enough votes to override the governor’s promised vetoes of the budget bills and the state-related university funding bills, said Dermody.
When asked about his vote for the budget, Mullery said it was intended to express his displeasure with the current situation, but he said he reserves the right to decide about a veto override vote should one come up in the future.
The revised budget, HB1801, won approval in the Senate on a 31-18 vote and in the House on a 128-63 vote. The Fiscal Code, HB1327, was approved in the Senate on a 30-19 vote and in the House on a 120-71 vote.
To override a veto, the Senate currently needs 33 votes and the House currently needs 134 votes (it will need 136 in a few weeks when three currently vacant seats are filled by the winners of three special elections).
The non-preferred appropriations bills, representing a 5-percent increase in funding for each of the state-related universities, won House approval on votes of 137-51 (for Penn State); 145-45 (for Temple University); 145-45 (for the University of Pittsburgh); 147-43 (for Lincoln University); and 142-49 (for the University of Pennsylvania).
“If a veto is on the horizon, scheduling an override vote would most likely be in the near future,” said House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin, noting the House could pick up the few additional votes, following Wolf’s promised vetoes, needed to override those vetoes.
“We cannot let schools close,” Miskin added.