HARRISBURG, Pa. – The state Senate on Friday passed an $11 billion short-term spending plan that faces a certain veto by Gov. Tom Wolf amid an entrenched budget stalemate that is forcing schools to take out loans and shutting off some social services.
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There is no end in sight to the stalemate, in its 80th day, as the Democratic governor and top Republican lawmakers have sparred publicly. Meanwhile, leaders of the Legislature's huge Republican majorities forged ahead with the short-term spending measure, against Wolf's wishes.
"Let's let the money flow," Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, told colleagues during floor debate Friday. "Let's let our school districts not have to worry about can they make payments to their employees. Can those employees, can they make their mortgage payment this month? Can they pay the food bill, pay the electric bill because they don't know if they're getting a paycheck or not? That doesn't need to happen."
The Senate's vote was along party lines, 30 to 19, as Democrats stood behind Wolf. They stopgap budget bill, they said, would simply cement in place funding cuts to schools and social services that Republicans had passed in the years before Wolf took office, cuts that he has sought to erase with increases in aid, Democrats argued.
"The people said they wanted to go in a different direction in November 2014," said Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia. "In a mandate, they decided to go in a different direction, with a new governor."
Action on the spending package in the Republican-controlled House was scheduled to begin Monday.
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The $11 billion would represent four months of funding, covering from the July 1 start of the fiscal year through Nov. 1. The measure also would release $24 billion in federal funds for schools and social services held up in the stalemate, Republicans say.
With the state's spending authority curtailed, Pennsylvania's school districts, counties and nonprofit social services organizations are trying to scrape by. They are securing bank loans, drawing on lines of credit, emptying reserves or delaying payments to vendors. Meanwhile, some relocation or rent assistance is unavailable for the poor and victims of domestic violence and waiting lists are growing for some services, such as day services for the elderly.
The Wolf administration is pledging to guarantee bank loans for any school district that needs it to make payroll.
Republicans have accused Wolf of vetoing their entire $30.2 billion, no-new-taxes budget bill on June 30 to use the pain inflicted from the shut-off in state aid as leverage in budget talks. Wolf has countered that the GOP's budget bill would have shortchanged education and human services, deepened a long-term budget deficit and let the natural gas industry off the hook.
However, Republicans have flatly rejected Wolf's $31.6 billion budget proposal, saying that it would require the biggest tax increase in the state's history. Wolf says the plan would wipe out the GOP's funding cuts for schools and human services enacted under Wolf's Republican predecessor, Tom Corbett, and balance the state government's long-term deficit.
The sides also have significant differences over reducing debt in the state's big public employee pension systems and the future of the state-controlled wine and liquor store system.