Brewing up a Budget: Will state spending plan pass on time?

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HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Workers at Little Amps Coffee Roasters in downtown Harrisburg know all about brewing coffee.

Sitting in the shadow of the State Capitol, they know a thing or two about the state budget as well.

Lawmakers and lobbyists make up a large chunk of Little Amps' clientele. No one from the Capitol is making any backroom deals over a cup of cappuccino, but budget talk is far from taboo at the coffee shop just a block away.

"I've heard people make jokes about (the budget) every now and then," employee Andy Hollinger says about some of the state's leaders who pop in from time to time.

The last few months, he says, have been quiet. There hasn't been much conversation at Little Amps about the upcoming 2016-17 budget, which, as of Thursday, is due in four weeks, June 30.

There doesn't appear to be much conversation going on inside the Capitol either. Outside of a Senate meeting on Tuesday, neither branch of the state legislature held session this week. Both the House and Senate will return to Harrisburg on Monday, June 6. However, by this time a year ago, Governor Wolf and House Republicans had already issued spending plan bills; the governor's plan was proposed to the House on May 11, followed one day later by the GOP response bill.

Bill proposals do not matter, even less than a month before a budget is due, if no one is on the same page, says Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.

"You have to get to a compromise, and they have a lot of work to do in a short period of time," he says.

However, bipartisan meetings are taking place, according to Governor Wolf's office, and despite the fact no compromise bills have been issued, the tenor of the budget discussions are positive.

Governor Wolf was in Philadelphia on Thursday, but his office said in a statement:

"The governor has been meeting with leaders from both parties as well as members, and staff-level discussions are ongoing. The governor will continue talking with the legislature to work toward a bi-partisan agreement on a final budget that is balanced, fixes the deficit and invests in important areas like education and combatting the heroin crisis. The governor believes conversations have been positive and he is optimistic that all sides can work together to reach a compromise on the 2016-17 budget."

Republican leaders were unavailable for comment on Thursday.

"If they're attacking each other every day in the newspaper it makes it much harder to get to that compromise," DePasquale said. "So, the fact the tone has been much more positive makes that compromise much more doable."

If the two sides are unable to come to an agreement on a budget plan by June 30, the auditor general says, Pennsylvania's credit rating would likely get lowered again, making it more expensive to borrow money. It will also prove tougher than the previous year's nine-month impasse on school districts and human services, which depleted their financial reserves to get through the 2015-16 budget crisis.

"There's very little wiggle room for what happened last year to happen again," DePasquale said. "The problems of last year would be child's play to the problems of this year if the same thing were to happen again."