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Budget Brinksmanship Leaves Last-Minute Bills In Doubt

Matt Rourke

Republicans who control the Pennsylvania Legislature have inserted some pet policy objectives into hundreds of pages of just-unveiled legislation with the annual budget deadline days away, forcing Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf to make hard choices.

Amid the deadline brinksmanship, measures advancing Thursday included a $34 billion budget package and changes to laws that govern elections, public schools and human services.

One GOP-backed provision in a bill on Wolf's desk is making the governor decide between eliminating a decades-old cash assistance program for the poor and continuing state subsidies for Philadelphia hospitals. Not one single Democratic lawmaker voted for it, and a fight in the Senate over the bill on Wednesday devolved into shouting, name-calling and bare-knuckled procedural tactics.

Another three-paragraph provision inserted into a sprawling, 69-page budget-related bill would stall any move by Philadelphia to ban plastic bags or impose a fee on reusable bags that many stores provide. Wolf in 2017 vetoed a bill that sought to prevent counties and municipalities from taxing or banning plastic bags.

"Why would we ever want to stop communities from taking important action from protecting their environment and their citizens?" Rep. Carolyn Comitta, D-Chester, said during floor debate on the bill Thursday.

Late Wednesday, Republicans unveiled a provision to authorize up to $90 million in state aid to help counties buy new voting machines and inserted it into wider legislation that makes a number of changes to election laws.

Wolf had sought aid for counties to back up his order to buy new voting machines by 2020's presidential election, but rank-and-file Democrats staunchly oppose one of those changes in election law: ending a ballot option that allows voters to simply select a straight-party ticket in elections.

It comes as Republicans worry that waves of moderate suburban voters inflamed by President Donald Trump could also punish down-ballot Republican candidates in the 2020 election.

Wolf hasn't said how he'll handle bills that include provisions hotly opposed by his Democratic allies in the Legislature.

Some Democrats say they worry that ending straight-ticket voting options will benefit Republicans in down-ballot legislative elections. The House's Democratic whip, Rep. Jordan Harris of Philadelphia, said he is concerned that it will diminish the influence of voters in his district.

"There are many studies that show that it disenfranchises poor, minority voters," Harris said in an interview. "Also, voters from densely populated areas, and as you know, as a Philadelphian, that's my community."

Republicans contend it will make elections fairer for people of all political parties. Rep. Marcy Toepel, R-Montgomery, said eliminating straight ticket voting would require voters to become more informed about the candidates.

"I think it forces voters to become educated about who they're voting for," Toepel said.