Pa. Budget Woes Deepen; Senate Starts Vacation

Auditor warns further delays could be "disastrous."

State Auditor Eugene DePasquale on Wednesday warns against further budget delays.

State Auditor Eugene DePasquale on Wednesday warns against further budget delays.

We’ve all gone on vacation knowing we left a little bit of work undone. But the Pennsylvania Senate has us all beat: It’s starting a two-week vacation without having passed an annual budget that was due all the way back in June.

The beginning of the break coincided Wednesday with a blistering noon news conference by State Auditor Eugene DePasquale, who warned that the state’s schools were approaching a half-billion dollars in borrowed money simply to stay open while Gov. Tom Wolf and legislators remain deadlocked over the budget. Those costs, he said, could double if there’s not a budget by Thanksgiving. (Philly schools have already borrowed $275 million, and are poised to borrow more in December, DePasquale said.)

“At a minimum this is a distraction for our school districts, and at its worst, it’s a downright emergency,” DePasquale told reporters. Further delays in passing a budget will cause the situation to “go from bad to borderline disastrous.”

He added: “If you’re not frustrated, you’re not paying attention. … The only people that are winning in this right now are the banks,” which are earning millions in interest on the borrowed funds.

Despite the warning, the Senate on Wednesday morning failed to override Wolf’s veto of a “stopgap” budget to tide state government over until a permanent solution can be found.

There had been a growing chorus to keep legislators in Harrisburg until a budget is passed, but the Republican-controlled Senate voted on party lines to adjourn the session.

“This two-week adjournment is just another slap in the face of Pennsylvanians, and in particular, the citizens who rely on the programs and services that are on the brink for lack of state funding,” Pa. Sen. Rob Teplitz, a Democrat representing parts of Dauphin and Perry counties, said in a statement.

Anger over the impasse — today is its 120th day — is growing. TribLive reported the state had managed to spend $27 billion during that period, despite the absence of a budget. A Robert Morris University poll released Tuesday showed that Wolf’s approval rating had dipped to 49.3 percent — down by seven points over eight months, but still pretty healthy compared to the 35.8 percent approval rating for the General Assembly.

Jeffrey Sheridan, Wolf’s spokesman, said Wednesday the governor is ready to make a deal — if Republicans offer a compromise that increases state education funding, fixes the deficit, and offers property tax relief.

“We understand the hardships that schools and human services agencies are experiencing,” Sheridan said — and added that for schools, at least, the administration is trying to facilitate low-interest loans to reduce the burden of paying them back later.

Even with the two-week break, Sheridan said, senior staffers would continue negotiations.

But: “They should be here,” Sheridan said of the departing legislators.” We’ve been waiting for months now for Republican leaders to get serious about negotiating.”

Stephen Miskin, a spokesman for House Republicans, said it’s the governor who has been intransigent — refusing an offer to raise education funding $400 million, and refusing to set a new course once his tax proposal was voted down by the Pennsylvania House; nine Democrats joined Republicans in voting against Wolf’s plan.

“His plan was rejected in a bipartisan fashion a couple of weeks ago,” Miskin said. “At some point there needs to be a sense of reality. The fact is the vote support does not exist for the governor’s increase in taxes.”

Miskin said there was “no reason” the process should have reached the point that schools are borrowing money to stay open.  “That’s disgusting. That’s abhorrent. It shouldn’t be this way.”

Back at the news conference, however, DePasquale said both sides need to come to the table ready to deal.

“It is easy to blame people for this. It is harder to find solutions,” DePasquale said. “That’s what leadership is.”

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