Pa. budget measure a step closer to passing, but not to becoming law

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – A state Senate committee approved a budget bill Sunday night that the House passed Saturday. But one step closer to the governor’s desk does not mean one step closer to law.

The measure is popular with Republicans; it’s not with Democrats, but they don’t have the votes in the GOP-led Senate to stop it.

With Governor Tom Wolf’s veto waiting if it passes, the clock is ticking for a budget compromise.

A bill is due on his desk by Tuesday and the one that’s been proposed is highly divisive.

“I would not be surprised if it became a partisan vote. It should not be a partisan vote,” said Senator Vincent Hughes, the minority chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

It was a partisan vote in that committee Sunday evening.

Hughes tried to amend the bill to $800 million more for schools, on top of what’s proposed in the bill. He also asked for more money to go toward job creation and to human services to combat the state’s heroin epidemic.

Those amendments failed, largely because Senator Patrick Browne, the committee’s Republican chair, said there was no money built into the measure to support such large funding increases.

The budget would no longer be balanced if the amendments were to be approved, he told the committee.

The bill passed on party lines (Republicans in favor, Democrats opposed) with no amendments.

“The problem that we’re confronting is dealing with this proposal that’s in front of us right now is taking time, wasting time,” Hughes said in an interview before the vote.

Republicans don’t see it that way: They say their job was to send along a budget, and that’s what they did.

“We believe we had a mandate to come here from the voters, who gave us large majorities to come here and hold the line on spending,” said majority leader Jake Corman, also a member of the Appropriations Committee.

One way they’re trying to raise money so they can prevent tax increase is by privatizing the state wine and liquor businesses.

The Senate Law and Justice Committee approved that bill Sunday as well, despite objections it risks eliminating 4,700 state jobs.

Republican Senator Scott Wagner responded that in the capital area alone, there are more than 3,000 openings for skilled labor, and those displaced by the state’s move to get out of the alcohol industry could find work elsewhere.

Now the liquor measure and the budget go to the full Senate.

“The budget that we’re voting on tonight is a product that we have worked out with our colleagues in the House,” Senate president Joe Scarnati said, “and so we don’t anticipate any changes to this.”

With Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, Democrats have yet to incorporate any meaningful changes into the bill. Wolf has said repeatedly he will veto the measure if it comes to his desk in its current form.

“Hopefully the governor will change his mind and sign it,” Corman said.

Tuesday is the deadline for the budget and it is the first day the Senate is allowed to vote on the measure. If Wolf doesn’t sign, lawmakers head back to the drawing board Wednesday.

“I’ve scheduled myself to be here throughout the rest of the week,” Hughes said. “So I’m ready.”

The impact of heading into the second half of the week — and the new fiscal year — without a budget probably won’t be felt right away.

Hughes said the governor’s office has been working on safeguards to keep the lights on and people at work in the event there’s no agreement by the end of June.

One senator we talked to said he’d be happy if the budget issue were resolved by mid-July.

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