Gov. Wolf’s Self-Created Constitutional Conflict

Rep. Bill Adolph accused the Wolf administration of creating a budget crisis during Thursday's final House Appropriations Committee budget hearing. In an op-ed published Friday, Representatives Greiner and Grove argued the governor's actions created a constitutional crisis.

Whatever the claims, it's clear the budget impasse will have implications far beyond the 2016-17 fiscal year budget.

The state treasurer recently approved Governor Wolf’s request to release funds for corrections above what has been appropriated. This action flies in the face of constitutional powers and circumvents the legislative process.

Article III, Section 24 of the Pennsylvania Constitution prohibits spending without statutory authority.

No money shall be paid out of the treasury, except on appropriations made by law and on warrant issued by the proper officers; but cash refunds of taxes, licenses, fees and other charges paid or collected, but not legally due, may be paid, as provided by law, without appropriation from the fund into which they were paid on warrant of the proper officer.

On the other hand, courts have ruled that federal and constitutional law require the commonwealth to continue paying for services related to the health and safety of residents.

This constitutional conflict exists solely because Governor Wolf line-item vetoed $944 million of corrections funding in the December budget—the very funding he's now asking the treasurer to pay anyway.

Several state lawmakers put forth legislation to avoid future constitutional conflicts during a budget impasse. Many of the proposals include a “default budget.”

  • Sen. Lisa Baker’s SB 326 and SB 327 creates a default budget equal to 80 percent of the prior year’s funding.
  • Sen. Stefano’s SB 1129 provides a monthly appropriation to schools and human services providers and limit per-diems, travel, social media and other discretionary spending until a budget is passed.
  • Rep. Truitt’s HB 1410 defaults to the previous year’s budget and automatically reduces certain line items in the event of a budget shortfall.
  • Rep. Truitt also sponsored House Bill 232, a constitutional amendment to provide a default budget and reduce expenditures to meet lower-than-anticipated revenues.

A default appropriation process is important, but so is transparency. During the budget impasse, there has been confusion over how much money was spent without a budget, and why that spending was authorized. In approving the additional corrections funding, the treasurer set guidelines as to what must be funded and what cannot be—but provided no oversight for lawmakers or taxpayers to ensure the law is being followed.

One solution is to improve Pennwatch, the “state checkbook.” The online database could provide greater value if the administration published payment data promptly, provided more details on where the funds were going, as well as how they were approved.

Moreover, Pennwatch data cannot be downloaded, which makes it difficult to analyze trends. Such improvements should be easy to implement and would improve transparency and accountability in state spending.