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Wolf relents on budget, but says he'll veto fiscal code

As written, the code limits funding for Philadelphia and other poor school districts.
newsworks
  • Gov. Wolf March 23 2016
    Governor Tom Wolf / Flickr

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Major questions remain about the details of Gov. Wolf's decision Wednesday to end the state's historic, protracted budget impasse — particularly when it comes to funding for public schools.

Almost nine months beyond last year's budget deadline, Wolf has agreed to allow a $6 billion supplemental spending plan passed by the Republican-held General Assembly to go into effect at the stroke of midnight Monday.

The plan includes $150 million in new basic education spending — far less than the governor had wanted.

At a press conference Wednesday in the Capitol, with many districts set to run out of cash soon, Wolf reversed a pledge he made last week to veto the latest budget bill approved by the House and Senate.

"This means that schools will stay open through the end of the year, but unless Harrisburg changes its ways, they won't have adequate funds for next year," he said.

In August, Wolf vetoed a similar budget. As the impasse persisted into late December — with schools starved for state aid — he agreed to OK a partial-year plan that included $50 million in new "Ready to Learn" block grant funding and $30 million in new special-education cash.

But he used his line-item veto power to cut school spending and other state priorities in the hopes of securing a larger education funding boost by leveraging Republican leaders back to the negotiating table.

That tactic did not work, and with Wednesday's action, the new K-12 spending in Wolf's first year is set to total $230 million.

Both sides, though, quibble with that number.

Both disputes are rooted in the fact that Wolf also signaled Wednesday that he will veto the fiscal code bill.

Fiscal code in doubt

Because the fiscal code acts as a roadmap for how education money is divided, Republicans say that if Wolf follows through on that veto, he will effectively keep new spending in limbo.

"You can't spend that $150 million without a fiscal code," said Jenn Kocher, spokeswoman for Senate Republicans.

The Wolf administration disputes that, saying that it will unilaterally distribute funding "in the most appropriate manner possible."

Just before the Christmas holiday, when the General Assembly left Wolf a budget without having passed a fiscal code, the governor decided how to divide block grant funding.

Then, he favored districts such as Philadelphia that were disproportionately hurt when the legislature in 2011 agreed to Gov. Tom Corbett's austerity plan that coincided with the expiration of federal stimulus dollars.

Wolf has pushed to make these restorations before implementing the student-weighted funding formula as proposed by a bipartisan commission.

Republicans disagree with that philosophy and could challenge Wolf in the courts if he now attempts to disperse cash without their consent.

"We would review our options," said Kocher.

As written, the fiscal code would undo Wolf's December restorations and mean that the School District of Philadelphia would actually lose money in the new deal.

State Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, applauded the governor's decision to reject the code bill and said he hopes Wolf divides funding in a way that acknowledges the "untenable" stress that he says state lawmakers have placed upon the district.

"At some point an injustice is an injustice, and it's got to be addressed," said Hughes.

Read the rest of this story at NewsWorks

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Kevin McCorry

Kevin is WHYY/NewsWorks' senior education writer.