Pa. legislators weigh dueling budget bills

Gov. Wolf and Senate Republicans have been discussing expanding the sales tax to include goods and services that aren't currently taxed, but they have not said what those would be.

HARRISBURG - The Pennsylvania House and Senate took radically different steps Monday toward resolving the state's five-month-old budget impasse, placing the chambers on seemingly separate tracks just days after they had been working together on a final agreement.

During a brief and nearly debate-free session, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a $30.8 billion spending plan that reflects many aspects of the so-called framework agreement announced by Gov. Wolf and Republican leaders before Thanksgiving.

Then a key House committee voted along partisan lines to approve its own pared-down spending plan - with less money for public education and little chance of support from the Senate or Wolf - but one that House Republicans pushed anyway after rank-and-file members over the weekend signaled they would not support the original framework.

"This budget isn't perfect . . . but this is a compromise," said Rep. Bill Adolph (R., Delaware), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, sidestepping questions about how that plan could pass both chambers.

The dual - if not dueling - tracks followed a weekend of turbulence in a budget season unlike any in recent history. The unrest seemed likely to continue through the week - and few in the Capitol could predict what would happen if the two GOP-controlled chambers moved ahead with different sets of legislation.

For the stalemate to end, the House and Senate have to jointly approve budget-related bills to send to the governor for his signature.

Without naming names, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) called on lawmakers Monday to remember those constraints instead of holding out for proposals that have little chance of passing.

"Eventually, we are judged by our results," he said. "It's nice to be for something, but if you never get anything passed and signed, what good are you?"

The state has been without a budget since July 1, leaving counties, nonprofits, and school districts to borrow money or make cuts without state aid.

While the Senate was scheduled to work on unresolved budget issues Tuesday and Wednesday - including deciding how to fund the budget and crafting a liquor-reform bill - the House was preparing a full vote on its smaller spending plan.

That $30.2 billion plan would increase funding for public schools, but far less than the $350 million Wolf and Republican leaders had agreed to. It would rely on new revenue from Internet gaming, as well as a hike in the cigarette tax, to pay for the additional spending.

Adolph said there were enough votes to pass the bill. "We've waited too long," he said. "The folks back home want a budget in place."

Wolf's spokesman, Jeff Sheridan, said it was "completely in contrast" with the deal that House Republican leaders had previously agreed to.

The Senate's plan, meanwhile, reflected many portions of the initial framework, calling for a $350 million boost to basic education spending, Wolf's long-stated priority. In return, the chamber passed a separate bill to modify the state pension system, a priority for Senate Republicans.

Corman said the deal "moves Pennsylvania in the right direction in a lot of key areas."

Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.) praised the additional education spending, saying "anything less than that does not meet the bar."

But senators did not say how they intended to pay for the new expenses. Republicans and Wolf were discussing expanding the sales tax to include goods and services that aren't currently taxed, but have not said what those would be.

Liquor reform, another plank in the framework, was also still up in the air. Corman said a resolution could involve allowing wine and spirits to be sold outside of state-owned stores, and also studying how to lease wholesale operations currently managed by the state.

It was not clear if Wolf or the House would support that proposal. The governor had no public appearances on Monday and none planned for Tuesday.

House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) has pushed a much more aggressive liquor privatization plan.

With so many questions still unanswered - and the competing sets of legislation nearly set to move forward - it was not clear how or when a resolution would come, even though both sides agreed the end should be near.

"Maybe we should have been in this spot in July," Corman said. "But we need to get something that we can all sign and pass [so] we can get this thing over with."

cpalmer@phillynews.com

609-217-8305 @cs_palmer

Inquirer staff writer Angela Couloumbis contributed to this article.