Bucks lawmaker tries solitary path to a budget deal

Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R., Bucks) says he hopes his plan helps break the stalemate between Gov. Wolf and Republican leaders. (AP Photo/Marc Levy)

HARRISBURG - With budget negotiations between Gov. Wolf and GOP leaders grinding to a halt, a Republican legislator from Bucks County stood inside the largely deserted Capitol on Thursday with a compromise plan.

Rep. Gene DiGirolamo said that negotiators had become entrenched, and that a prolonged impasse would hamper the state's ability to pay nonprofit organizations that provide key social services. DiGirolamo said he hoped his roughly $30.6 billion spending proposal would spur a deal.

"I'm up here by myself - that's by design," said DiGirolamo, who chairs the Human Services Committee. "There is a lot of rhetoric on both sides. . . . My opinion, respectfully, is, it's got to stop."

In 20 years in the House, DiGirolamo, of Bensalem, has carved out a reputation as a moderate Republican, and his middle-ground budget reflected that. It would raise some of the taxes Wolf has proposed to generate new revenue, while also increasing funding for public schools and social services.

DiGirolamo would impose a 3.2 percent tax on natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, which he says would raise about $200 million this fiscal year. Wolf wants a 5 percent levy.

He said he would raise the personal income tax from 3.07 percent to 3.32 percent to generate $937.5 million. Wolf wants a 3.7 percent rate, the first income tax increase since 2003.

A large chunk of the new revenue would go to education: $225 million for basic education, $60 million for early-childhood education, and $55 million for special education. Health and human services programs would receive an $85 million bump.

DiGirolamo's proposal does not address two GOP budget priorities: privatizing the state's wine and spirits stores, and reining in the skyrocketing cost of public employee pensions. (DiGirolamo said he had heard that Wolf and Republicans had been making progress on a pension compromise.)

And he said that although it was nerve-racking to stand alone, he believed something had to be done to break the logjam.

"I'm going to get some criticism," DiGirolamo said. "But I'm not going to apologize to anybody for trying to find a solution."

Without a budget in place on July 1, the state lost some spending authority. The administration has acknowledged that it would be unable to pay contractors at the end of this month as well as local governments and nonprofit organizations that provide social services including drug counseling and meals for the homeless.

Talks between Wolf and Republican leaders have stalled.

Republicans have said that while they are open to new sources of revenue, they cannot support any increases in the sales or personal income tax. They have complained that Wolf has been unwilling to move off any of his original tax proposals. even after they were defeated in the legislature.

"He is literally discounting the opinions of the members of the General Assembly and the people they represent," said Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Republicans. "Until he acknowledges other people's opinions, he's just being obstinate."

Wolf feels the same way about Republicans.

His spokesman, Jeff Sheridan, on Thursday stopped short of weighing in on DiGirolamo's plan. But he said he hoped it would spur the Republican leadership to acknowledge that the state must break the cycle of deficits.

"Gov. Wolf will continue fighting for a commonsense severance tax to invest in education, to fix our deficit without gimmicks, and to provide property tax relief to Pennsylvania families," Sheridan said.


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