Wolf tries new tactic in stalemate to secure a budget agreement: smaller, quieter meetings



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HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — Gov. Tom Wolf is shifting strategy as a state government budget stalemate stretches into a third month, abandoning heavily attended meetings with lawmakers and aides in the Capitol in favor of smaller, more private meetings without staff.

Wolf held private meetings Tuesday in his official residence with top Republican lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman and House Majority Leader Dave Reed.

"The path that negotiations have been on have not been productive," Wolf's spokesman Jeff Sheridan said. "I think there's been a lot of people in the room, a lot going on outside the room."

Some of Wolf's Capitol meetings had been attended by a dozen lawmakers and dozens of aides to both the governor and lawmakers. The meetings tended to be short, with little progress reported.

Reporters waited outside those meetings for them to break up. Occasionally, the public comments made by Wolf or lawmakers as they left were sharply critical about their negotiating partner.

"I think the governor is really trying hard to get a final budget and he's trying a different tactic," Sheridan said.

Corman's and Wolf's offices did not give details about Tuesday's meetings. Reed spokesman Steve Miskin said no agreements or proposals were made, and he did not believe that Wolf gave the Republicans an answer on their two-week-old offer.

The offer — to meet a key demand of Wolf's to boost public school aid, even if it requires a tax increase — came with the condition that Wolf support the Republican push to end the traditional benefit for most employees in Pennsylvania's two big public pension systems by directing them into 401(k)-style retirement plans.

Wolf has opposed such a change, although he has expressed a willingness to consider limiting how much of an employee's salary would count toward a traditional pension benefit.

On June 30, Wolf vetoed the Republican majority's $30.2 billion budget bill hours after it passed without support from a single Democratic lawmaker. Meanwhile, Republicans balked at Wolf's $31.6 billion budget plan, saying it would require the biggest tax increase in Pennsylvania history.

Wolf has criticized the GOP's budget as shortchanging public schools and safety-net services, while worsening state government's long-term deficit and letting the natural gas industry escape the kind of severance tax that is imposed by every other major gas-producing state.

Wolf and Republican lawmakers are also battling over the future of the state-controlled system of wine and liquor sales and how to cut property taxes that provide the biggest source of revenue for public schools.

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