HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Even before Gov. Tom Wolf took office, Republican lawmakers drew lines in the sand. Now, with two months until the new fiscal year begins, Republicans who control the Pennsylvania Senate are under the gun to back up their words with votes.
The GOP hopes to force the Democratic governor to make concessions on two key issues during horse-trading over his $31.6 billion budget proposal. But it is not clear whether Senate Republicans can produce a viable plan on either: overhauling benefits in Pennsylvania’s two big public employee pension systems and permitting the sale of wine and liquor by private businesses.
Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati said this week that he believes his chamber’s Republicans will be able to pass a forthcoming pension bill and come to an agreement with House Republicans on a wine and liquor bill. Not to do so, Scarnati said, would be to accept a tax increase - or, at least, a bigger tax increase - being proposed by Wolf to plug a massive projected deficit that has driven Pennsylvania’s bond rating into the nation’s basement.
“I believe the momentum and the public is clearly on our side,” said Scarnati, R-Jefferson. “The alternative is unacceptable: tax increases. Broad-based tax increases don’t have support.”
Even less clear is whether any Senate GOP legislation on pensions or wine and liquor sales will offer any real or immediate help to the state government’s ragged finances.
Wolf, a Democrat, has said that he would oppose efforts to privatize wine and liquor sales or to dump the traditional pension benefit system afforded to state employees and public school teachers.
The challenge before the Senate Republicans comes after a successful election. They expanded their majority from 27 to 30 in the 50-seat chamber, but they also replaced their majority leader of eight years, Dominic Pileggi of Delaware County, in a move that underscored a growing strain between the GOP’s conservatives and moderates.
The House in February passed a bill to privatize the operations of much of the state-controlled wine and liquor store system. Every Democrat opposed it, criticizing it as a long-term fiscal loser for the state, as did four Republicans. Senate Republicans, who made an overhaul of the state pension system benefits their top priority, have not taken up the wine and liquor legislation. After initially promising to introduce a pension bill in early January, their timeline has slipped to May to take that step.
The forthcoming bill from Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, will be 400 pages and, he said, include concepts that have not been debated previously in the chamber. No hearing on it is planned or necessary, Senate GOP leaders said.
Ideally, for Republicans, their huge House and Senate majorities would seize leverage by passing liquor and pension legislation to Wolf. But Democratic lawmakers remain opposed to the Republican bills and, as July gets closer, the odds are shrinking that the Legislature’s GOP majorities will bring such legislation to Wolf’s desk before June 30.
For now, Senate Republicans have not proven they can pass a pension bill.
House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said he has confidence in Senate GOP leaders, and emphasized that he and they are talking regularly and cooperating. That was not always the case under Wolf’s Republican predecessor, Tom Corbett, when pension and liquor legislation stalled amid differences between the two chambers’ Republicans.
For their part, Senate GOP leaders downplayed the importance of passing legislation before they join Wolf at the negotiating table in June. The situation can change quickly when the sides negotiate against the perceived July 1 deadline, they say.
In any case, if Republicans cannot pass pension or liquor legislation, they will turn to Democrats for votes if Democrats expect any part of Wolf’s agenda to pass, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman said.
“They’re going to be part of this process as well,” said Corman, R-Centre. “If they want some of (Wolf’s) priorities in the budget that we may ultimately agree to, it remains to be seen, they’re going to have to help with some of our things as well.”
Marc Levy covers politics and government for The Associated Press in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/timelywriter.
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