Wolf office defends 2016-17 budget plan in Capitol hearings

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HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Governor Wolf cabinet members withstood questions from bipartisan committees in both the state House and Senate on Monday during the first day of hearings on his 2016-17 budget plan.

All the meanwhile, a budget for the 2015-16 fiscal year has yet to be finalized.

Governor Wolf was at a National Governor's Association conference in Washington D.C.

Budget secretary Randy Albright was among those jousting with the Senate Appropriations Committee, reiterating multiple times how Pennsylvania can go down one of two paths. He hopes state lawmakers can pass a balanced, $30.8 billion budget for 2015-16 which the governor's office maintains was agreed upon by House and Senate leadership in December, and then use the "Framework", as it's been called, to pass a $32.7 billion spending plan for 2016-17 which includes more than $500 million in reallocated pension funds.

The second alternative, Albright says, is to face a $2 billion structural deficit.

Senate Republicans on the committee wondered why the state feels it's necessary, when facing a potential billion-dollar deficit, to add $200 million to a basic education budget after the governor agreed to a $377 million increase in spending for 2015-16.

Albright insisted the GOP-sponsored plan, House Bill 1460, which funded basic education approximately $200 million less than Governor Wolf's plan, was cost-cutting.

"The only cutting here is what the governor did with his blue pen," Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman said in reference to his full-budget veto last October.

As state Senators searched for answers, House Republicans were searching for ways to cut taxes.

The governor's 2016-17 budget proposal included a series of revenue generating tax increases, including an 11 percent personal income tax increase from 3.07 to 3.4%, as well as a 6.75 percent new severance tax on natural gas drilling.

"We hear it from our constituents all the time, 'Please, no more taxing'," said State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre).

On Monday, Benninghoff unveiled PennSAVE, a new initiative with plans on "cutting government waste and inefficiencies." Both of Gov. Wolf's budget proposals are currently in the crosshairs.

"I look at this as a new state budget, almost pushing the reset button," Benninghoff says.

He was joined by a dozen House GOP colleagues as they announced their plans to investigate all areas of state government to try and find ways to save money, reiterating multiple times it was neither a Democrat or Republican issue. Benninghoff added he's discussed his plan with Gov. Wolf, and hopes to work in conjunction with State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, a Democrat.