Wolf, allies launch appeal to rank-and-file GOP legislators to join Democrats on budget plan

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HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and his allies have begun reaching out to rank-and-file Republican lawmakers in an effort to build majority support for a budget plan that can break a 3-month-old budget stalemate.

The concept being circulated lacks many details but revolves around imposing a new severance tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas production and raising the state's personal income tax rate, Republicans said.

Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks, said it will be difficult, but not impossible, for Wolf to woo enough Republicans to his side to pass both houses of the Legislature, where huge GOP majorities are in control.

"I'm willing to talk to the administration," said DiGirolamo, who has a history of bucking House GOP leadership. "The question is, what are the rates on the Marcellus Shale tax and personal income tax and where does the revenue go?"

Wolf told KQV-AM radio in Pittsburgh on Wednesday that he believes he can win over "good Republican legislators" who are tired of the stalemate.

Leaders of House and Senate Republicans maintain there is not enough support in the Legislature to pass an income or sales tax increase, and certainly not the multibillion-dollar tax increase Wolf is seeking.

Wolf insists such an increase is necessary to wipe out funding cuts for schools and human services enacted under his Republican predecessor, Tom Corbett, and to eliminate a long-term budget deficit that he projects will reach $3 billion next year.

Still, Republican majority leaders told Wolf in a closed-door meeting last week they would allow a floor vote on a budget package that includes an income or sales tax increase if Democrats can secure enough support to pass it.

That invitation has spurred the Wolf administration and its allies into conversations with rank-and-file Republican lawmakers. A Wolf administration spokesman would not say which Republicans are being targeted or what they are proposing to them.

One Republican who has been approached, Rep. Nicholas Miccarelli of Delaware County, said he supports the imposition of a severance tax but not necessarily an increase in the personal income tax.

"Any kind of personal income tax increase, I'd have to look at very, very hard," Miccarelli said. "It's hard for me to figure out a scenario where this benefits the people in my district."

Rep. Scott Petri, R-Bucks, said he has not been contacted by Democrats. However, House Republican staff approached him Wednesday with a copy of what they called the Wolf administration's latest tax package from closed-door talks with GOP leaders.

Dated Sept. 11, the one-page rundown projects to raise $3.2 billion in a full year. Most of the money would come from raising the income tax from 3.07 percent to 3.49 percent; expanding the sales tax to include purchases of things like cable TV, dry cleaning and amusement and recreation services; imposing a severance tax on Marcellus Shale production; and adding $1 to the current $1.60-per-pack cigarette tax.

"I said, 'I'm a no on that bill,'" Petri said. "If that's the proposal, I don't think it works."

A Wolf administration spokesman would not say whether it backs that plan.

In the 203-seat House, Democrats would need 18 Republicans to get to a simple majority of 102 votes, assuming all 84 Democrats are on board. There is one vacancy in the 50-seat Senate, meaning Democratic leaders would need support from at least six Republicans, assuming all 19 Democrats are on board.

While rejecting the notion of an income or sales tax increase, GOP leaders also have not said which tax increase Republicans might be willing to support, if any. Meanwhile, they have pressed Wolf to end the traditional benefit in Pennsylvania's two big public employee pension systems in favor of a 401(k)-style retirement plan and to privatize the state-controlled wine and liquor store system.

This story has been corrected to show the last name of the state representative from Delaware County is Miccarelli, not Miccarrelli.

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