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Wolf signs bills to balance Pa. budget with gambling and borrowing, hints of veto of education bill

Source: www.philly.com

HARRISBURG — Gov. Wolf signed Monday most of the bills needed to bring the state’s $32 billion budget into balance, authorizing an expansion of casino gambling and a borrowing plan pushed by lawmakers.

And he took one more chance to complain about the politics of the Republican legislative majority that he blames for months of budget chaos and a credit downgrade.

“I’m sick and tired of special-interest politicians, self-interest, political games trumping the public interest here in Harrisburg,” the Democratic governor said in a speech Monday at the monthly press club luncheon in Harrisburg.

It sounded like an early campaign speech. Wolf is up for re-election next year, and one of the candidates who hopes to challenge him, Sen. Scott Wagner (R., York), sat in the crowd listening.

Still, even after the governor’s speech and an impromptu news conference, many questions remain unanswered.

Near the top of the list is how much the state will be looking to borrow. Wolf this month unveiled a plan to borrow $1.25 billion and pay it back using revenue from the Liquor Control Board. He did that when the legislature was dragging its heels on a revenue package, before it passed a plan to borrow $1.5 billion against proceeds of the state’s landmark settlement with tobacco companies.

On Monday, Wolf signed the tobacco-fund loan plan. Asked whether he would continue to pursue his idea of borrowing against liquor money, he first said yes, then later said he misspoke. At the end of the day, it was clear only that he will provide more clarity after the Commonwealth Financing Authority decides whether to approve the plan involving the tobacco money.

One of the bills Wolf signed Monday also required him to take $300 million out of dedicated funds for projects ranging from transportation to environmental clean-up. Wolf did not specify which funds he might tap. “If I do that,” he said, he would “take a look at that to make sure it’s not actually damaging programs.”

Wolf suggested he may veto one bill remaining on his desk — the education code, the bill that authorizes spending to the state’s public schools.

“There are a couple of things I’m not real comfortable with,” he said, though he didn’t note exactly which provisions troubled him.

He added later: “I’d like to, I think, go back to the drawing board.”

A few lines tucked into the education bill would allow school districts, when laying off teachers for economic reasons, to do so on the basis of performance evaluations rather than seniority. That measure is deeply opposed by school unions in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said the provision would be damaging.

“It’s really opening the door to a selective and abusive employer practice,” said  Jordan, whose support was crucial to Wolf’s gubernatorial win. “It’s subjective and arbitrary.”

The PFT objects to the evaluation system generally; under it, Jordan said, teachers who were judged exemplary by their principals can end up with “needs improvement” ratings overall because they work in struggling schools. Such teachers could, in theory, be laid off, he said.

The teachers’ union in Pittsburgh expressed similar concerns. The president, Nina Esposito-Visgitis, said in a statement that the layoff provision was “horrifying” and urged Wolf to veto the bill.

In addition to outlining the formula to calculate spending for districts, the education-code bill also includes language that requires training for newly elected school board members and charter school trustees; a provision that delays a rule that high-school students must pass standardized tests to graduate; and language that prohibits “lunch shaming,” meaning districts must provide students with food even if they owe money.

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