- Associated Press - Monday, June 22, 2015

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - The Republican-controlled Legislature appeared more firmly on course Monday to passing a state budget opposed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, raising the likelihood of a veto and an extended stalemate.

Nine days out from the start of Pennsylvania’s next fiscal year, the House and Senate had no major votes scheduled as Republican leaders conducted most of the work behind closed doors.

They gave few details about their efforts to hammer out a budget plan and measures to overhaul public pension benefits and privatize the state-controlled wine and liquor stores that could pass both chambers.

But they acknowledged the likelihood that the only plans Wolf will get on his desk before July 1 will be negotiated by Republicans.

“As every hour ticks by, that likelihood gets much higher,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, who held a Capitol news conference with House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny.

Across the building, Wolf met privately with top Democratic lawmakers and then blasted Republicans.

The GOP leaders’ focus on their proposals for public pensions and liquor and wine sales is interfering with more important discussions, he told reporters.

“I’m not seeing a real interest in having an honest conversation,” the governor said. “I really want to talk about education funding. I really want to talk about (a proposed natural-gas) severance tax, property-tax relief, about addressing the structural budget deficit.”

A stalemate into the new fiscal year will mean a loss of some spending authority by the Wolf administration, which is unlikely to start affecting state services until mid-July. Democratic lawmakers acknowledged the growing possibility of a budget stalemate and suggested it is inevitable if Republican leaders need to prove to their conservative wing that Wolf will veto their legislation.

“Maybe they want to see something vetoed just so they can say, ‘What you really want, we can’t get and, therefore, we have to negotiate and start making some movements toward what the governor is talking about,’” said House Minority Whip Mike Hanna, D-Clinton. “I think that the conservative elements of both the Senate Republicans and the House Republicans have got control of their caucus today. I don’t think they’ll have control when we resolve this.”

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, insisted that Republicans were not blithely sending bills to Wolf to get a veto stamp. Rather, he said, it is necessary to advance ideas that Republicans believe are important, and Wolf has essentially done the same thing.

“What’s the point of introducing a budget that raises $8 billion worth of taxes when he knows full well we’re not going to pass it?” Corman questioned.

Wolf has proposed an aggressive plan to increase spending through the state’s main bank account by about 9 percent to $31.6 billion, largely to wipe out a large deficit, boost public school aid and meet rising pension and health care costs. He also proposed billions of dollars in reduced corporate and school property taxes by raising state taxes on income, sales, Marcellus Shale natural gas production, tobacco sales and banks.

Republicans have balked at a tax increase and have insisted since December that any budget agreement with Wolf include pension and liquor legislation. But they have not introduced or passed a budget counterproposal, and they have not produced pension or liquor legislation that can pass both chambers and produce significant new revenue or savings to help them buttress their case against a tax increase.

Wolf and Democrats flatly oppose two core aims of Republicans, to privatize wine and liquor stores and to end the traditional pension benefit for all future state government and public school employees by putting them into 401(k)-style retirement plans.

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