State budget talks ‘brewing’ at and around Capitol Complex

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- If there's one place in the capital city to get the latest state government dirt, find your local coffee shop.

Capital Joe, a coffee shop on Forster Street across from the Capitol Complex, is a hot-spot for state employees, says worker Matthias Cabbell.

"We can see them. They can see us. It's a beautiful marriage," Cabbell says of the relationship his coffee shop has with Pennsylvania's power players.

Capital Joe opened nine months ago, which means, thanks to the relatively quick state budget impasse in 2016 (it lasted just under two weeks), this is their first 'budget season.' According to Cabbell and co-worker Autumn Smith, the upcoming state budget, due July 1, is on the minds of many of their customers.

"We hear talk about policy, and the budget has been a talk here lately," Cabbell said. "You see the stress in people, and their jobs."

Places in Harrisburg, like Capital Joe, are where coffee and politics meet, with a lot of similarities between the two. Just like the perfect cup of brew has to have the right kinds of ingredients blending together, so too does a state budget, with all the different types of policies and ideals that state lawmakers put into their annual spending plans which cost billions of dollars.

If the right ingredients don't mesh, the coffee, much like the feelings inside the State Capitol, come back the same: bitter.

Jennifer Kocher, press secretary for Republican Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, says that is an area Governor Wolf has improved upon since his first state budget two years ago.

"It seems as if there's an ability now to sit down and realize you have to get an agreement across the board or the results equal zero," she said.

Wolf's first budget resulted in a nine-month impasse. Even though it's typical for the Democrat governor and Republican-majority House and Senate caucuses to disagree, there appears to be more of a willingness in this, his third budget, to meet compromise.

"You have to have something the governor will sign or it's tantamount to nothing," Kocher said.

Two weeks until the 2017-18 state spending plan is due, negotiations between the caucuses and the governor are in their infancy stages. According to Kocher, Senate leadership has met with House Republican leaders to discuss their budget as a jump-off point. House Bill 218 passed in April by a vote of 114-84, despite no support from Democrats as well as a few Republicans.

Even so, Kocher says, their $31.5 billion spending proposal is more appealing than Wolf's $32.3 billion budget.

"We're looking at their budget as a starting point," Kocher said. "It's more conservative for taxpayers."

Wolf's plan does not include any broad based tax increases, such as sales or personal income tax raises. It also, like the House GOP budget, includes consolidations to state health agencies, as well as the Corrections Department with Probation and Parole. However, the governor's plan asks for more money for education, from pre-K through higher ed, and requests a severance tax on fracking.

There are concerns, however, that neither budget does enough to address an estimated $3 billion deficit that Pennsylvania is facing next year.

"We all have to come together and find new revenue," said State Representative Patty Kim (D-Dauphin). "Unfortunately that's the hardest and we saved it for last."

Rep. Kim says House Democrats are opposed to more revenue projections coming from increased liquor and gambling proposals. Democrats want to see more ideas for ways to generate revenue, as opposed to spending cuts. The House GOP plan, she says, cuts subsidies for child care, as well as a Capitol Fire Protection Plan, which pays the City of Harrisburg money for the use of their fire department.

"The silence is deafening at this point. We know we have a revenue problem. No one is coming up with any good ideas. We've maxed on every gambling dollar known to man," Kim said.

In a statement through his press secretary, Governor Wolf said his, "...foremost priority for upcoming discussions remains working with Republicans and Democrats to achieve a long-term solution to our budget challenges through a combination of savings, efficiencies, and closing loopholes to ensure everyone is paying their fair share."