- Associated Press - Monday, February 8, 2016

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Pennsylvania lawmakers returned to the Capitol on Monday with growing questions over the state government’s increasingly confusing budget situation, and with no answers on how they will solve it.

Billions of dollars for schools, prisons and hospitals this year are in limbo in a dispute between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled Legislature, a day before Wolf gives lawmakers what could be an approximately $32 billion spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The fight is prompting new questions from lawmakers about the governor’s legal authority to spend money without their approval. Meanwhile, talks on how to resolve this year’s battle are at a standstill.

“It’s sort of unclear how we move forward because we’re in uncharted territory,” Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, told a Pennsylvania Cable Network interviewer.

On Monday, Wolf gave a preview of the budget speech he will deliver Tuesday to a joint session of the House and Senate.

“We have a very tough set of choices to make with this year’s budget,” he said in a statement. “Our commonwealth is in crisis and we stand at a crossroad.”

His new spending plan, Wolf wrote, will build on a bipartisan deal that was struck in November but never enacted. The pact collapsed before Christmas, piece by piece, as rank-and-file House Republicans fought the $1 billion-plus tax increase that Wolf supported as a means to help close a long-term deficit and funding gaps between wealthier and poorer school districts.

The proposal, Wolf wrote, “faces up to reality and does the difficult things we need to do to bring it into balance.” The governor’s 470-word statement did not mention the need for a tax increase, instead using the words “real sources of revenue.”

He addressed Republican opposition to a tax increase, warning that he will balance a deficit projected to be around $2 billion next year with deep spending cuts, rather than “one-time patches and wildly optimistic assumptions” used to cover past deficits. The fallout will be closing schools, higher local taxes and higher borrowing costs for state and local governments, he wrote.

For now, the state has a $23.4 billion budget in place, although Democratic lawmakers have bottled up more than $500 million in university subsidies and Wolf vetoed $6 billion for prisons, schools and hospitals, in part to pressure Republican lawmakers to pass the November agreement.

In a Senate committee hearing Monday, Republicans objected to any move by Wolf to spend more than the amount he allotted to prisons, without their approval. Millions of dollars in payment requests from the Wolf administration were pending Monday at the state Treasury Department. Treasury officials said they were trying to determine whether approving them would push Corrections Department spending beyond the $1.3 billion Wolf authorized when he signed parts of an appropriations bill in late December.

Republican senators suggested that granting Wolf’s payment requests would upend the system of checks and balances between the legislative and executive branches. It also elicited frustration over the budget fight.

“I’m fed up about this budget, just like everybody else is,” said Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Allegheny. “It’s shameful. … This is ridiculous. We don’t have dealmakers anymore and we don’t have compromisers.”

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