On Feb. 4, Gov. Tom Wolf rolled out a $36.1 budget proposal for fiscal 2020-21 that calls for a $200 million college grant program, a $15 an hour minimum wage, and new spending on gun violence reduction efforts.
He’d barely finished speaking when Republicans who control the state House and Senate started poking holes in his spending proposal.
But going on in the background is another, equally important fight over spending in the budget year that hasn’t even ended yet.
State spending has exceeded the $34.5 billion that lawmakers and the Democratic administration agreed on for the 2019-20 budget year, which ends on June 30. And as a result, the administration is going back to the well, and asking lawmakers to authorize an additional $588 million to cover the shortfall (The new budget year starts on July 1.)
In budget-speak, these are known as “supplemental appropriations,” and they’ve been a fairly common occurrence over the last few years. Even so, Wolf’s latest request prompted GOP lawmakers to ask for a top-to-bottom review of state spending.
So what’s the spending for?
The two biggies here are the state Department of Corrections and the Department of Human Services, which consume the largest share of taxpayer dollars every budget year.
They’re respectively looking for supplemental appropriations of $75 million and $492 million, Wolf administration officials confirmed to the Capital-Star last week.
The spending will cover such federally mandated programs as medical care for inmates at state correctional institutions, under the Corrections Department, and Community Health Choices and Medicaid services that are under the aegis of the Human Services Department.
The federal mandate means the state is legally required to provide those services, regardless of whether the state has the money to pay for them.
As one official put it, “the governor’s hands are tied.”
If lawmakers sign off, the appropriation will not go into the state’s general fund, but will instead be channeled directly to the program’s specific line items, officials said.
The GOP response
Earlier this month, House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, addressed committee leaders, asking them to “evaluate the existing management, structure and results of the departments under your purview.”
Pointing to, among other things, cost overruns and state programs that Republicans believe aren’t meeting their objectives, Cutler said the increased scrutiny was justified.
“While our standing committees have traditionally been focused on passing legislation, having them review and oversee the executive departments will help maximize existing investments,” the House GOP floor boss said.
Saylor continued: “Taxpayers should be getting a break during these times of economic prosperity, but instead, this governor continues to ask for more from Pennsylvanians’ wallets. Our committee leaders will take thorough looks at all state agencies and expenditures, examining which programs are helping move our Commonwealth forward, and which are only holding us back.”
Administration officials disputed GOP claims that the supplemental appropriations were the result of mere overspending by the administration and its agencies, calling them “mischaracterizations.”
Officials say the programs didn’t get the funding they needed to cover their costs, which is why the administration has had to go back to lawmakers.
The appropriations being requested are based on the number of individuals served, and the cost of serving them, officials told the Capital-Star.
This isn’t the first time Wolf and his administration have had to ask for supplemental appropriations. According to the administration, this is the fourth consecutive year that a supplemental appropriation has been needed to fund the state’s essential programs.
The appropriations “have become structural,” Rep. Matt Bradford, of Montgomery County, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, told the Capital-Star.
“Frankly, it’s disingenuous to claim at the end of the year that they were unaware of these challenges, Bradford said. “If you [the Legislature] don’t want a supplemental in the following year, you probably need to budget honestly at the beginning of the year.”