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State Judge Lets Budget Constitutionality Case Proceed

Gov. Tom Wolf delivers his 2015-16 budget speech to members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

A state judge has allowed a lawsuit over budgeting practices to proceed.

The suit alleges top elected officials have violated the Pennsylvania constitution in the last two years by passing budgets without fully funding them, and borrowing money to pay off a previous year’s debt.

Two years ago, a spending plan passed just after the June deadline, but it took lawmakers weeks to finalize how to pay for it.

The situation reoccurred last year, with the deadlock stretching four months.

Matt Brouillette, a conservative who runs the advocacy group Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs Inc., is one of the complainants in the case

He said he’s worried the state will continue to see bigger deficits and a continuing pattern of unbalanced budgets if the state’s practices aren’t better-policed. 

“The violations have been so egregious in the last two fiscal years—we couldn’t allow this to continue unchallenged,” he said.

Lawyers for Governor Tom Wolf, Senate leaders, and a number of other top state officials tried to get the case declared moot—saying it was irrelevant because a budget has already been passed, and a similar situation is unlikely to happen again.

But Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer decided to let it proceed—saying “there are sufficient legal and factual issues that remain in dispute.”

Those disputes include whether the spending plan passed in October is actually balanced.

The case is now on track to proceed in Commonwealth Court, though the state can still file additional appeals.

If it gets to consideration before a judge, it will likely revolve around a few key arguments.

State lawyers say there is no constitutional provision that requires spending and funding plans to pass at the same time, and contend the court shouldn’t interfere with budgeting because it is a legislative process.

The complainants maintain the constitution clearly stipulates state budgets must be balanced, and past budgets don’t meet that standard. They also say a court decision wouldn’t interfere with the separation of powers.

“We aren’t asking the courts to do the budgeting process for the legislators or Governor Wolf,” Brouillette said. “We’re just asking that they adhere to the constitutional requirements for a balanced budget, and we believe that is very much the purview of the court.”

In the past, Wolf has repeatedly maintained he believes the state’s budgeting has been constitutional.

A spokesman for Wolf declined to comment on active litigation.

WESA will be surveying Pennsylvania candidates for federal and state office for the 2022 general election — tell us which issues are most important to you.