By MARC LEVY Associated Press HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s election-year budget plan unveiled Tuesday will renew battles with the Republican-controlled Legislature over imposing a tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas and increasing the minimum wage. Wolf’s budget plan, his fourth and final first-term proposal, would boost spending by about $1 billion, or 3 percent, to $33 billion for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The higher spending would go toward public schools, skills training, pension obligations, prison costs and social services for children, the elderly and disabled. In a prepared copy of his speech to a joint session of the state House and Senate in the Capitol, Wolf reels off a list of his perceived accomplishments in office. But he also gives a nod to his battles with the Legislature’s huge Republican majorities, which have rejected billions of dollars in tax increases sought by Wolf and forced him to adopt more austerity in budget-making. “Sometimes, we’ve worked our way to compromise. Sometimes, I’ve been forced to move forward on my own,” Wolf says in a copy of his prepared remarks. “We still have a lot of work to do. By taking on the status quo here in Harrisburg, we’ve already begun to write a new story for our commonwealth. Not a story about a past we’ll never get back. But a story about a brighter future we can build together — if we can muster up the political will to do it.” Wolf, who is seeking a second term in November’s election, will count on an improving fiscal picture — potentially aided by December’s federal tax overhaul law — to pave a smoother budget process after three years dominated by protracted partisan stalemates over how to plug gaping deficits. Wolf now projects no deficit next year, although independent analysts have cast doubt on the administration’s contention that it has fixed Pennsylvania’s entrenched post-recession deficit. Wolf will not seek an increase in sales or income taxes, but the new budget plan would rely on about $250 million from a new Marcellus Shale tax — Wolf’s fourth straight attempt to impose one — and $100 million in savings on human services programs. Administration officials say the savings would come from reduced demand for the services because of an increase in the minimum wage to $12 an hour, up from the federal minimum of $7.25. Wolf also will make a second request for municipalities to start paying a $25 per-person fee for the free state police coverage they receive, a total of $63 million a year. Like a Marcellus Shale tax and a minimum wage increase, the state police fee has been blocked by Republican lawmakers. Wolf’s budget also projects a big expansion of lottery games, approved by lawmakers last October, to allow keno and virtual sports games in bars and lottery games online. Public schools would get another $100 million for operations and instruction, a bump of less than 2 percent, while more money would go to special education, early childhood education and state-owned universities. Wolf will seek big increases for programs to help high schools and colleges teach high-demand computer and industrial skills and to subsidize child care for low-income working parents. The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania said it expected a “hold-the-line budget” for social services costs that reflects the state’s tight budgets. The Pennsylvania School Boards Association said it was pleased with an increase in state aid, but pointed out that school districts will still face a much larger increase in costs. Wolf’s proposal comes on the heels of a budget agreement last fall that relied heavily on borrowing and other one-time cash maneuvers to backfill Pennsylvania’s biggest shortfall since the recession. This year, revenue growth is expected to improve, while key cost pressures have eased. Wolf also has sought to squeeze out savings by shrinking the workforce and consolidating administrative operations in state agencies.
By MARY CLARE JALONICK,
CHAD DAY and JONATHAN LEMIRE Associated Press
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump met with a top Justice Department official Tuesday to review a classified Democratic memo on the Russia investigation, less than a week after he brushed aside objections from the same agency over releasing a Republican account.
The dueling memos — and Trump’s silence so far on whether he will release the Democratic version — have set up a standoff between Trump and congressional Democrats and deepened partisan fights on the House intelligence panel. The memos have become the recent focus of the committee’s probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, taking attention away from investigations into whether Trump’s campaign was involved.
The Democratic document is intended to counter the GOP memo, which criticized methods the FBI used to obtain a surveillance warrant on a onetime Trump campaign associate. The president has until the end of the week to decide whether to make it public.
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump met with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to discuss differences between the two memos, and “we are undergoing the exact same process that we did with the previous memo, in which it will go through a full and thorough legal and national security review.”
White House chief of staff John Kelly said later that he’s instructed officials to complete an evaluation of the Democratic memo no later than Thursday. After that, Kelly said, “we’ll brief the president on it and he will have a decision to make” on whether to declassify it entirely, or perhaps declassify it with some redactions.
Kelly said the Democratic version is “not as clean a memo as the first one.”
The House panel voted unanimously Monday to release the Democratic memo, sending it to the White House.
Separate Russia investigations are underway by the Senate intelligence committee and special counsel Robert Mueller, whose team is scheduled to interview former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon next week.
The Mueller interview was confirmed by two people familiar with it. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about details of the interview.
Bannon is expected to face questions about key events during his time in the White House including Trump’s firings of former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former FBI Director James Comey.
Also Tuesday, the House intelligence committee gave Bannon another week to negotiate the terms of a closed-door interview as the White House has put limits on what he can tell Congress. Bannon was under subpoena to appear Tuesday as part of the panel’s Russia probe, but Republicans pushed the deadline to next week as talks about the terms of his interview continued.
California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the intelligence panel, said Bannon’s lawyer has told the committee that the White House will only permit him to answer 14 “yes” or “no” questions. He said Bannon is barred by the White House from talking about matters during the presidential transition, his time at the White House and communications with Trump since he left in August.
Schiff said the panel is in rare bipartisan agreement that the terms offered are unacceptable.
“Should Bannon maintain his refusal to return and testify fully to all questions, the committee should begin contempt proceedings to compel his testimony,” Schiff said.
Despite unity on the Bannon interview, partisan tensions continued to run high on the committee as lawmakers issued their dueling memos.
Schiff and other Democrats have raised questions about whether the committee chairman, Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of California, coordinated with the White House in drafting the GOP memo. After the document’s release last week, the president quickly seized on it to vent his grievances against the nation’s premier law enforcement agencies and said it “totally vindicates” him in the Russia investigations.
“The goal here is to undermine the FBI, discredit the FBI, discredit the Mueller investigation, do the president’s bidding,” Schiff said, adding that he thinks “it’s very possible” that Nunes’ staff worked with the White House.
Nunes was asked during a Jan. 29 committee meeting whether he had coordinated the memo with the White House. “As far as I know, no,” he responded. He refused to answer when asked whether his congressional staff members had communicated with the White House. He had previously apologized for sharing with the White House secret intelligence intercepts related to an investigation of Russian election interference before talking to committee members.
The Republican memo released last Friday alleges misconduct by the FBI and the Justice Department in obtaining a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to monitor former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page. Specifically, the memo takes aim at the FBI’s use of information from former British spy Christopher Steele, who compiled a dossier containing allegations of ties between Trump, his associates and Russia.
The GOP memo’s central allegation is that agents and prosecutors, in applying in October 2016 to monitor Page’s communications, failed to inform fully a judge about Steele’s political bias and that his opposition research was funded in part by Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee.