HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Democrats and moderate Republicans upended House GOP majority leaders on Tuesday, winning a series of close votes that signaled a potential breakthrough in Pennsylvania’s 6-month-old budget stalemate.
The coalition sent a bipartisan spending bill over a key procedural hurdle, raising the possibility that the main appropriations bill in a $30.8 billion spending package could land on Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk as early as Wednesday.
The spending bill, about a 6 percent increase, passed the Republican-controlled Senate two weeks ago. Wolf supports it as part of a wider budget package that has been hung up by House GOP opposition since the outlines of a bipartisan deal were announced in early November.
“We still have a ways to go, but this was a nice step in the right direction,” Wolf said. “So we’ll see what happens tomorrow, and I’m hoping that we continue the progress.”
Other major elements of the bipartisan budget deal remain in limbo. Pension legislation that Senate Republican leaders had tied to their support for the tax and spending package has stalled in the House.
In addition, legislation to authorize a $1 billion-plus tax increase as part of the deal has not been introduced in either chamber, and it remains unclear what, exactly, it would include. Wolf has sought the money to reverse post-recession cuts to public schools and human services and to narrow a long-term budget deficit that has damaged the state’s credit rating.
Pennsylvania is one of just two states - along with Illinois - still fighting over a budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. It is close to breaking its modern-day record - Wednesday, Dec. 23 - for a budget fight, set in 2003 by another first-year Democratic governor, Ed Rendell, and a Republican-controlled Legislature.
With billions in state aid held up, cash-strapped school districts are borrowing to stay open, social service agencies are laying off workers and state-subsidized prekindergarten programs are closing to hundreds of children in low-income families. Domestic violence shelters are filled to capacity and home care services for the elderly in many counties are unable to take new enrollees.
The state’s largest school system - Philadelphia - says it will close Jan. 29 without state aid while several school districts have raised the idea of staying closed after the winter break to avoid having to borrow more money.
In November, Wolf and House and Senate leaders agreed to a budget deal that revolved around the 6 percent spending increase and $1 billion-plus tax increase. But House Republicans revolted against the size of the tax and spending bills.
Supporters of the spending plan successfully maneuvered it Tuesday through a series of razor-thin votes and a floor challenge to insist that members vote in person, rather than by proxy from afar. In one vote, it passed 100-99. The last vote, 100-97, sent it onward to the possibility of a final floor vote Wednesday.
The parliamentary maneuvers also defeated the House GOP leadership’s effort to pass a short-term emergency spending plan, called a “stopgap budget,” that Wolf had threatened to veto.
A small number of the House’s 119 Republicans, largely from swing districts in southeastern Pennsylvania, broke ranks to join all 83 Democrats and form a majority.
“If you’re a (legislative) leader, you need a way out of this,” said Rep. John Taylor, R-Philadelphia. “A stopgap is not a way out of this.”
House Republican leaders had argued that a short-term spending plan was the best way to break the stalemate while negotiations continued. However, Taylor, who led the majority coalition’s action on the House floor, warned of severe consequences for failing to pass a full-year budget in swift fashion.
“They’ve never seen the type of catastrophe that’s coming to Pennsylvania if this doesn’t get done,” he said. “If schools start to close it’ll be negative consequences that these members have never seen. Nor me.”
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