Wolf, allies press House GOP for votes on tax increase

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Gov. Tom Wolf's administration and its allies worked through the day Thursday to sway enough rank-and-file House Republicans behind a $1 billion-plus tax increase to override opposition from House GOP leaders and end the state government's 5½-month budget stalemate.

The day ended without resolution, after House Speaker Mike Turzai gave the Democratic governor 24 hours to show whether he could assemble enough votes to move the tax package through the chamber.

With Wolf phoning rank-and-file Republican lawmakers, the governor's office said it was "confident" that it will get the support it needs in the Republican-controlled House. Top House Democrats said they were making progress, although they declined to name names.

"I think people are ready to understand that they've got to keep the schools open, they've got to take care of the deficit," House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, said Thursday night. "They're finally realizing that this has got to get done and it's got to get done now. ... I'm hopeful we're going to get there, yeah. I think it looks good, but I'll believe it when it's on the board."

The flurry of activity came a day after leaders of the huge House Republican majority moved decisively to pin responsibility on Wolf to scrape up support in the chamber, one week shy of the modern-day Pennsylvania record for a budget standoff.

Rank-and-file House Republicans stiffened against the spending and tax plan supported by Wolf, House Democrats and the Senate, prompting accusations by the governor's office that House GOP leaders had failed to deliver on a budget deal for the second time in a month that they themselves had helped negotiate.

Pressure is mounting. Cash-strapped school districts are getting slapped with potentially crippling credit downgrades, social service agencies are laying off workers and state-subsidized prekindergarten programs are closing to hundreds of children of low-income families.

Wolf downplayed Turzai's 24-hour ultimatum and stayed out of sight Thursday. Turzai's office said Thursday evening that it had had no word from the governor after the 12:30 p.m. deadline had passed.

Turzai's office would not say Thursday evening whether the speaker would still allow a floor vote on a tax bill after the afternoon deadline had passed, should enough support materialize. Turzai held out the alternative of a short-term spending bill to keep state government operating, but Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said his chamber continued to back the agreement with the governor.

"A stop-gap doesn't solve our problems," Corman said. "It probably causes more and delays them, so we're not really interested in talking about that at this point in time. ... Now is the time we need to be done and hopefully we'll have the votes and get it done."

Wolf, the Republican-controlled Senate and House Democrats are backing a $30.8 billion spending plan — a 6 percent spending increase — and an accompanying $1 billion-plus tax plan that has not been written into legislation.

The details of the tax plan continued to evolve Thursday — House Democrats were pressing for an increase on the personal income tax, rather than a sales tax increase preferred by some Republicans — in an effort to pick up votes in the House.

Wolf has demanded a tax increase to help wipe out deep public school funding cuts in 2011 while meeting counties' requests for an increase in social services aid and narrowing a long-term budget deficit.

Senate leaders say they believe it can pass the Senate, and Senate Republican majority leaders signed on in exchange for Wolf's support for legislation they've long sought to overhaul public pension benefits.

In October, 73 House Democrats backed an approximately $2 billion tax package in a test vote, and Minority Whip Mike Hanna, D-Clinton, said Thursday night that he expected more Democrats than that to support a final tax bill.

House Republicans said it would be a challenge to win over 20 or 30 of their 119-member majority.

Lawmakers thinking about voting for the tax increase are also thinking about the Feb. 16 filing deadline to get on the primary ballot, and the potential that a tax increase fresh in the minds of voters would doom them to a successful challenge from the right.

"I think it makes it more difficult for both sides of the aisle to put that vote up," said Rep. Eugene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks.

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