Pa. lawmakers offers positive budget update, but opinions differ on what’s ahead

Governor Tom Wolf, flanked by outgoing budget secretary Randy Albright and his replacement, Jen Swails. (Katie Meyer/WITF)

Governor Tom Wolf, flanked by outgoing budget secretary Randy Albright and his replacement, Jen Swails. (Katie Meyer/WITF)

With six months left in the fiscal year, Pennsylvania lawmakers are already looking ahead to potentially difficult budget discussions.

However, disagreements have surfaced on what exactly the fiscal situation will be when the time comes.

In his annual midyear update on the commonwealth’s fiscal position Tuesday, Budget Secretary Randy Albright offered a fairly sunny overview of the state’s higher-than-usual tax revenue for the 2017-18 year.

“Year-to-date tax collections through the end of the month of November are now 8.2 percent, or more than $900 million above the prior year collections,” he reported.

But Albright noted some dark spots.

He’s projecting higher-than-expected spending on human services, due largely to federally mandated costs.

While not pinpointing exactly how much that overhead would be, Albright said it would require supplemental funding next fiscal year to cover the difference.

“It will be less than the projected surplus that we’re expecting to have at the close of the fiscal year,” he said.

The Independent Fiscal Office, meanwhile, has projected between a $1.5 billion and $1.7 billion deficit next year — an ominous prospect given lawmakers’ habitual deadlocks over finding more money.

Albright said he doesn’t think the gap will be that big.

GOP House Appropriations Spokesman John O’Brien said his caucus also disagrees.

“That $1.7 billion is all predicated on us enacting a budget that is $35.6 billion, which is a 10 percent increase,” he said. “There are no votes in the Republican caucus for a budget that large.”

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf will announce his official budget goals for next year in February, but Albright hinted the administration may consider charging fees for some state police coverage to overhaul infrastructure funding, among other things.

It’s a proposal that has failed multiple times in the GOP-controlled legislature, and O’Brien said his caucus has no plans to go along with anything like it this year.

“Our belief is that we’re going to live within the current revenue structure we have,” he said. “We don’t look to be raising any new taxes, we don’t look to be increasing any new fees, and, as we head into negotiations next year, that’s going to be our focus.”

This midyear budget update will be Albright’s last.

In a surprise announcement at the end of his briefing, the secretary said he’s stepping down from the post. Jen Swails, who previously oversaw budgets in the state Human Services Department, will be taking his place.

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