Gov. Wolf to House GOP: Get your 'act together'

Wolf Consolidating Agencies
Gov. Wolf said progress must be made.

HARRISBURG — With Pennsylvania still in budget limbo, Gov. Wolf on Tuesday called on House Republicans to “get their act together and finish the job,” while continuing to steadfastly sidestep questions about what exactly he will do if the impasse drags on.

In a scheduled appearance on KDKA-AM in Pittsburgh, the Democratic governor said that the GOP-controlled Senate has passed a revenue package to fund the $32 billion spending plan that lapsed into law last month but that the House, also controlled by Republicans, has taken no action on it.

But he avoided answering a question about whether he will freeze spending as the budget stalemate continues. Earlier this week, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) said Wolf has to put state dollars into reserve since the state is swiftly running out of available cash in its main bank account.

“I think there are a lot of adults in the room in Harrisburg, and some of the folks on the House Republican leadership ought to get their act together and finish the job,” Wolf said. “Failing that, I think President Scarnati is right.”

Later in the morning, Wolf told reporters at an event outside Harrisburg that come Sept. 15, the state will face a major decision on how to deal with its cash-strapped finances. That is when hefty Medicaid payments are made to health care providers across the state.

The governor said that one option would be to continue borrowing money to cover the state’s expenses, but that he thought that would be irresponsible without any movement on a revenue package.

“I ran a business,” said Wolf, who helmed his family’s successful cabinet supply and distribution company before becoming governor. “At some point, the bank or somebody says to you, ‘You’ve got to stop doing this.’ We have ratings agencies out there that are about to downgrade Pennsylvania’s debt because of this irresponsible behavior.”

Wolf would not say how much money he would have to freeze next month if he chooses that option.

“I don’t want to alarm anybody,” he said, adding that “the responsible thing to do” would be to wait until Sept. 15 to tell people the figure.

The House is scheduled to return to the Capitol in early September, but Wolf and Senate Republican leaders have been urging swift action on the budget to relieve pressure on the state’s finances.

Tax-averse House Republican leaders have said they have concerns over the Senate’s plan to fund the budget, which calls for a mix of borrowing and new or increased taxes. Wolf has said he supports that plan.

House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin on Tuesday said that his members had been working during the last few weeks to finalize a revenue plan, but he would not give specifics. He said they are looking at gambling expansion, liquor privatization, and dipping into other state funds to balance the budget.

“The fact is, members are working, have been working,” said Miskin.

State Treasurer Joe Torsella, a Democrat, approved one loan to the state this month to help keep the state in the black, but he has warned that cash on hand in the state’s general fund will again dip below zero by Aug. 29. By mid-September, the Treasurer’s Office predicts that account will fall $1.6 billion in the red — and hover at that negative balance for nearly two-thirds of the fiscal year.

Standard & Poor’s warned last month that it was placing Pennsylvania on a “credit watch.” A downgrade, if it were to occur, could make it more expensive for Pennsylvania to borrow money, various leaders have said.

The legislature passed a $32 billion spending plan just hours before the July 1 start of the fiscal year — but no corresponding way to pay for it. It continues to struggle with how to plug a $1.5 billion shortfall in last fiscal year’s budget, and a $700 million deficit in the new one that began July 1.

Late last month, the Senate, nearly a month past deadline, approved a series of bills that would balance the budget, in part by taxing drilling for natural gas, and by raising or imposing new taxes on telephone, electric and gas bills.

The House has not convened since the Senate bills passed. Majority Leader Dave Reed (R., Indiana) said this month that his caucus has concerns about some of the taxes included in the Senate bills. The House’s next session day is Sept. 11, though members technically remain “on call” and could be asked to return before then.