HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — Pennsylvania House members began debate Wednesday on Gov. Tom Wolf's longshot bid to end the state's 3-month-old budget impasse by passing billions in higher taxes through the Republican-controlled Legislature.
The start of debate demonstrated the partisan divide that has already produced several party-line budget votes this year, with Democrats urging passage of higher income tax rates and a new gas drilling tax and Republicans arguing working families would suffer.
"The budget deficit is real, it is massive," said Rep. Joe Markosek of Allegheny County, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. "Pennsylvania is in a fiscal mess, and if we don't raise more revenue, if we continue to kick the can down the road, the resulting cuts will make the previous administration's cuts seem like child's play."
The debate began the day after the first-term Democratic governor announced his plan to abandon a previous attempt at raising the sales tax while proposing a half-point increase in the state's personal income tax and a new levy on natural gas drilling. He wants to close a budget deficit and increase spending on education and human services.
Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, said lower-income residents would see natural gas become more costly, while working families would be hit with a 16 percent income tax hike.
"Let's roll up our sleeves, find ways, smart ways to balance our budget without putting the burden on middle class and low-income Pennsylvanians," Grove said.
Wolf's goal is to raise $1.4 billion for the fiscal year that began July 1 and $2.4 billion next year.
Democrats are in the House minority, so Wolf needs at least 18 votes for passage from a Republican majority that has generally been resistant to tax increases, although GOP votes helped impose a gas drilling impact fee in 2012 and a sharp rise in gasoline taxes two years ago.
Wolf vetoed a Republican-crafted budget that passed in late June on party lines.