As Congress races to avert a government shutdown, what may be a more prolonged political fight over the budget is dragging on in the state capital 120 miles (193 kilometers) to the north.
In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the state government is almost three months into the fiscal year without an agreement on what it can spend because of a divide between the Republican-led legislature and Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat. At least two school districts say they may soon have to close. Some debt has been downgraded. And investors have pushed yields on the Keystone State’s bonds close to recent highs over top-rated securities, a measure of the perceived risk.
Pennsylvania is the only state aside from Illinois that’s still locked in a stalemate over the budget, a standoff reminiscent of those that once played out in statehouses around the nation after the recession. While public finances have recovered along with the economy, Pennsylvania lawmakers are contending with a $53 billion pension-fund shortfall that’s threatening to hit the state with rising bills, as well as pressure to steer more money into schools.
As a result, investors are demanding yields on 10-year Pennsylvania bonds of 2.71 percent, 0.56 percentage point more than AAA municipal securities, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That’s just shy of the 0.61 percentage point reached in June, which was the highest since the data began in 2013. Only Illinois and New Jersey, which have even larger pension shortfalls, pay more, according to data on 20 states.
"Pennsylvania is not in as bad a situation as New Jersey or Illinois," said Scott McGough, director of fixed income for Glenmede Trust Co. in Philadelphia, who is reducing his holdings of Pennsylvania debt. "But clearly, the trend is poor at this point."
The legislature took a step to temporarily ease the crunch last week, when it passed a budget to provide about four months of funding to schools and other agencies. Wolf, who took office in January, will veto it, his spokesman, Jeffrey Sheridan, said Monday. Wolf wants a full-year budget.
"If Republican leaders in the legislature have their way, Pennsylvania would be saddled with another irresponsible budget,” Sheridan said. “The Republican budget would result in more credit downgrades.”
Since March, Wolf and Republicans have been at loggerheads over how to shore up the retirement system, which has less than two-thirds of the assets needed to cover the benefits promised to about 700,000 employees. Wolf vetoed a Republican bill that would have put new workers into defined-contribution plans similar to 401(k)s. He wants to sell $3 billion of debt to inject cash into the retirement system to make up for years of shortchanging it.
Republicans have also balked at his proposal to implement a new tax on natural-gas drillers and raise levies on income and retail sales to fund schools.