HARRISBURG — With less than 10 days to the deadline for a new state budget, there is talk but little action — and even less agreement — on how to close a steep budget deficit and fix the state’s fiscal problems.
Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, on Wednesday strongly signaled skepticism over a plan being discussed by Republicans who control the state Senate to borrow money to ease the state’s $1.5 billion shortfall.
Top Republicans in both chambers in turn have dismissed many of Wolf’s proposals to generate new dollars, including a new tax on natural gas drilling and an expansion of the state sales tax to items that are currently exempt.
And no one involved in budget talks appeared to be anywhere near figuring out a plan to expand gambling — one of the proposals that until now all sides indicated would likely be part of any final budget plan.
Muddying the waters further Wednesday: top legislative leaders sent rank-and-file legislators home for the rest of the week, setting the stage for a hectic session next week when they return to the Capitol.
Still, top legislative Republicans said they remained optimistic a budget can be done — if not on time, then nearly so.
“I don’t think we are very far off,” Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) said of reaching an agreement on the main budget bill. “I think we are making progress,”
Corman said negotiators are leaning toward spending about $31.8 billion in the fiscal year that begins July 1 — a number that is close both to what Wolf proposed when he unveiled his budget in February as well as to a plan House Republicans approved in the spring.
The question of how to pay for it remains the sticking point, as it has in past years.
Corman confirmed Wednesday that his caucus has discussed borrowing against money that flows annually into a state fund set up as part of the landmark 1998 multi-state settlement with tobacco companies.
“We want to do as little as possible, obviously,” Corman said, but would not put a ceiling on it.
For his part, Wolf said he wants a budget that doesn’t rely on one-time fixes.
“I’m looking for some real solutions here,” Wolf told reporters, adding: “And that’s what I think I proposed, and I’m looking for a final budget that enshrines that philosophy.”
Borrowing money to effectively pay the state’s bills has long been controversial in the Capitol, and proposals involving borrowing have been rejected before by conservative Republicans.
Even so, House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) would not say Wednesday whether he or other Republicans in his chamber supported the principle of borrowing, let alone the reality of its being used to close the budget shortfall.
“We haven’t seen the details yet,” Turzai said. But he noted that House Republicans have sent the Senate bills to raise new dollars through gambling expansion and further privatizing the sale of wine and liquor in Pennsylvania.
Corman signaled the gambling expansion push was on thin ice. He said he “pushed away from the table” this week because he was concerned about the scope of the House’s gambling proposal, which would include legalizing online gambling as well as allowing establishments across the state that have liquor licenses to have video gaming terminals (VGTs), or slots-like machines.
“At some point we have to sit back and look at the public policies that surround all this — is this good for our communities?” Corman said. “Before we pop up more casino lights across the state or VGTs, shouldn’t they have a say?
“So I just got a little nervous about the size and scope, so I pushed back,” he said. “But like I said, nothing is ever dead around here.”