Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Senate Approves Taxes on Drilling, Utilities Balanced Budget Plan Now Headed to House

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Senate Approves Taxes on Drilling, Utilities Balanced Budget Plan Now Headed to House

Article excerpt

HARRISBURG - After his no-new-taxes budget proposal went nowhere last weekend, Republican House Speaker Mike Turzai issued this challenge to his GOP colleagues in the state Senate: You try doing something.

On Thursday, the Senate delivered, narrowly approving a plan to balance Pennsylvania's nearly $32 billion budget in part by taxing drilling for natural gas and raising or imposing new taxes on consumers' phone, electric and gas bills.

Now, the spotlight once again returns to the House, which appears to be in no rush to return to the Capitol to debate the Senate's revenue package. In a letter to their members Thursday afternoon, House GOP leaders said to expect to come back sometime before the end of August.

When they do, the leaders wrote, "We certainly have no intentions to rubber stamp these bills."

The game of political chicken increases the likelihood of a prolonged impasse. State Treasurer Joe Torsella, a Democrat, has warned that by the end of next month, the state could run out of money unless a responsible - and complete - budget is passed.

And because Pennsylvania's constitution requires a balanced budget, Gov. Tom Wolf, also a Democrat, may be forced to freeze spending. His administration has avoided answering questions on when or even whether that would occur.

Negotiators have been trying for weeks to close a $2.2 billion gap in the budget, which has been out of balance for nearly a month. Although the Legislature passed a spending plan hours before the start of the July 1 fiscal year, it did not approve a corresponding plan to pay for it.

Mr. Wolf at the time said he was confident lawmakers would resolve the issue quickly, and he allowed the spending plan to lapse into law without his signature. But nearly a month later, negotiators were still debating how to cover a $1.5 billion shortfall in the last fiscal year and a $700 million deficit in the fiscal year that began July 1.

The Senate's vote Thursday sought to jump-start the process, even though Republicans, who hold a commanding majority in the chamber, knew it would be a heavy lift because "tax" has been a curse word for years as the Legislature has grown more conservative.

"It's a tough day for many of us," Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said Thursday during debate on the revenue package, which passed, 26-24, with both Democrats and Republicans voting for and against it. "It's not a day that we wanted to do . I guess some advocate that we shouldn't do anything. We should sit back and let Rome burn" or let the governor find the money to balance the budget, he said.

After the vote, Mr. Corman added: "We're open to see what the House wants to do. I think the speaker said last week he wanted to see what the Senate and the governor would support. …

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