Budget secretary grilled by lawmakers as appropriations hearings begin

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – On the scale of discomfort, it had to rank right up there with a root canal or hip replacement.

Pennsylvania Budget Secretary Randy Albright was the first to testify in the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday. For the next three weeks, House and Senate appropriations committees will take testimony from, and ask questions of, the leaders of various agencies to assess their funding needs.

But Albright is as close as lawmakers will get to actually having Governor Tom Wolf in the hot seat and senators took full advantage Monday grilling him on various topics. It can’t be easy to be a budget secretary testifying about the budget when there is no budget. In theory, these hearings are to focus on the 2016-17 budget. In reality, much of the focus was on the fact that there isn’t a completed 2015-16 budget.

Senator Mike Folmer (R-Dauphin/Lebanon/York) repeatedly asked how the Wolf administration was able to fund programs that the governor had blue-lined in December. Basically, what gives them the authority to direct money that the General Assembly hasn’t approved?

Albright said the law requires certain things like prisons and state worker salaries be funded, budget or no budget.

“Even in the circumstance that we’re in now where we don’t have an appropriation in place to fully fund those obligations, we’re still required to make those payments and work with treasury to do so,” Albright said though many senators said they disagree with that interpretation.

Senator Pat Vance (R-Cumberland/York) criticized the decision to blue-line funding for smaller, rural hospitals.

Albright explained that they would’ve been funded under a compromise budget plan but without a budget some difficult decisions needed to be made. “There are obligations that we can’t make if we don’t have recurring revenue,” Albright said.

“But you chose not to,” Vance interrupted. “You picked winners and losers and you decided that rural hospitals should be losers.”

She then noted that her complaint is not with Albright specifically but the Wolf administration.

“At the very least it’s awful judgment to have to starve out these hospitals and I question who’s making these decisions,” Vance said.

The governor wants a hike in the state income tax and he wants to expand the number of items slapped with sales taxes. He insists those tax hikes are desperately needed to fix a structural deficit that has festered for years and to properly fund schools.

But GOP senators aren’t buying it and if it was difficult to get a tax increase through the legislature in a non-election year, it’ll be darn near impossible to push one through this year when half the Senate and all of the House will face the voters

“We have continued to pile on government spending on top of a relatively weak economy, on our taxpayers,” said Senator Bob Mensch (R-Montgomery/Berks/Bucks). “Here we are now with this administration saying we’re gonna have tax increases yet again to get us out of our spending problem.”

But Democrats argue that taxes are needed because previous budgets have recklessly failed to meet pension obligations and fund schools and the bill has now come due.

“It’s difficult, but it’s not as difficult as the hell some people are suffering around Pennsylvania,” said Senator Vince Hughes (D-Philadelphia), “because too many of us around here don’t want to do the right thing.”

Under questioning, Albright admitted to Senator Scott Wagner (R-York) that he hadn’t reviewed a recent audit showing the Pittsburgh School District sitting on a huge surplus.

“I have to tell you that’s the worst answer I’ve ever heard,” Wagner said. “They found $129 million and you’re the budget secretary and you don’t know? Bad answer.”

Wagner promises to fight any tax increases by Wolf. He insists that the state needs to do a better job of following the money it already spends. The man who may one day run for governor took a shot at the guy currently in the office.

“Our government is growing like crazy and somebody needs to put a stop to it,” Wagner said. “This governor does not have the skills nor does he have the courage or backbone to turn this state around, period.”

Wolf’s press office released the following statement in response to Wagner’s comments:

“Gov. Wolf has a proposed a budget that eliminates Pennsylvania’s nearly $2 billion deficit and funds our schools, which have been decimated by years of cuts. It is a budget that honestly deals with the challenges facing Pennsylvania including the massive structural deficit that threatens Pennsylvania’s long-term future. After a year of obstruction, we need more compromise and less bluster from those in the legislature to help us deal with Pennsylvania’s challenges.”

So, appropriations hearings are off to a fitful start and it’s not exactly looking like either side is softening its positions. Vance, who will retire at the end of the year, called the budget limbo “unchartered waters.” She said she truly does not know what will happen next.

“It’s not only embarrassing, but it’s difficult to explain,” Vance said of the continuing impasse. But she added that it feels like a bigger deal inside the Capitol than outside.

“I am surprised at the very little bit of outrage that we get in our district office about it.”

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