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Politics & Government

PA Budget Talks Turn Sour As Both Sides Dig In

AP Photo/Matt Rourke
Gov. Tom Wolf delivers his budget address for the 2015-16 fiscal year to a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate on Tuesday, March 3, 2015, in Harrisburg, Pa.

The tentative optimism about a timely state budget is giving way to partisan backbiting as lawmakers enter the last week before their deadline to approve a state spending plan.

Gov. Tom Wolf and the GOP-controlled Legislature appear to be stuck, both sides unwilling to compromise major priorities tied up with the state’s spending plan due June 30.

“I think what’s becoming a road block is that I’m not seeing a real interest in having an honest conversation,” said Wolf, emerging from his office Monday after a meeting with Democratic legislative leaders. He’s expected to meet with GOP leaders on Tuesday.

Without any sign of agreement, Republicans suggest they’re getting closer to sending the governor a budget he wouldn't support. Wolf won’t say whether he would use his veto power on a plan that lacks the education funding increase he made the center of his gubernatorial campaign.

“I’m really hoping that we aren’t there yet,” he said. “I’m hoping that we can actually have some functional conversations.”

Top lawmakers disagreed over what caused the sour turn in negotiations.

“Wine and spirit privatization is the thing that’s put... everything to a halt,” said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa on Monday morning. House GOP leaders have made selling off the state’s liquor stores their foremost priority.

“That’s [expletive],” Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati said on Monday afternoon. He said the real reason for the impasse came up last week, over the proposal Senate Republicans have positioned as their top issue: scaling back public pension benefits for current and future state and school employees. The governor, Scarnati said, refused to agree to a bill that would end the traditional pension for future workers and switch them over to a 401(k)-style retirement plan.

“They’re looking for a scapegoat,” said Scarnati, referring to Democratic leaders who blamed the stalled negotiations on the liquor privatization issue. “They know that pensions are a cost-driver in this budget and future budgets. And they can’t run and hide from that.”

Wolf, for his part, has long opposed closing the state’s pension system to future employees. Democrats say switching such workers to a 401(k)-style plan, as is common in the private sector, would be a blow to their retirement security.