HARRISBURG – The main Pennsylvania state budget bill was sent to Gov. Tom Corbett Sunday night, a victory for the Republican governor and his legislative allies that was clouded by uncertainty over the fate of his other legislative priorities.
The 111-92 House vote along party lines followed the more bipartisan Senate approval of the $28.4 billion spending plan, which is a 2.6 percent increase over 2012-13.
Republican supporters said it made a year-over-year increase in education spending and avoided new taxes and debt, while Democratic opponents said it would indirectly cause higher taxes by forcing local school boards to boost property taxes and that it underfunded important government programs.
“Given the process that produced this budget, it’s not surprising that it’s weak and convoluted. There’s been a lot of arm-twisting in the past few days and that has meant a lot of last-minute and late night changes. We knew it wasn’t going to be pretty and we knew it would get pushed through before it was vetted,” said State Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, in a written statement released after the budget passed.
“The budget itself does little to help schools and the property taxpayers that support them. It does nothing to stimulate job creation. It lets enormous opportunity pass for another year,” he said.
The three other budget-season agenda items Corbett had fought for, however, appeared to be on life support. Republicans in the Senate refused to vote on liquor system privatization, and the House GOP was not able to round up enough support to pass a massive spending bill for highways, bridges and mass transit. There was no talk of the third item, public pension reform.
Corbett, who stayed largely out of sight during seven straight days of voting sessions in the Legislature, had little to say about the status of his agenda. Corbett plans to sign the budget late Sunday night.
On-time budgets in his first two years are among the top accomplishments the governor has trumpeted.
“I know we have a deadline of midnight tonight,” said Rep. Steve Santarsiero, D-Bucks, during the floor debate. “I think the people of Pennsylvania care less about that deadline than they do of making sure the job gets done right.”
Several Republicans said their support of the budget approach was taxpayer-driven.
“This budget not only keeps our priorities, the line items, but it keeps our priorities with respect to the taxpayers of the next generation,” said Rep. Eli Evankovich, R-Westmoreland.
The $2 billion transportation bill ran into trouble largely because it involves an increase in a wholesale fuel tax plus other fees and taxes, and House Democrats have not been supportive of it because they see it as inadequate, particularly for mass transit systems.
Meanwhile, the Senate’s Republican majority refused to approve a private wine and liquor sales bill without a commitment from House GOP leaders to send it to Corbett’s desk unchanged and approve the transportation funding bill.
“Simply to send the (liquor) bill to the House with no assurance that it would go the governor’s desk seems like a meaningless exercise,” Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi said Sunday evening. “The other (concern) is the House does have a transportation bill that was sent to them that 45 members of the Senate are very concerned about and we’d like to see action on that bill.”
In another sign of trouble, Pileggi, R-Delaware, said the House Republican transportation bill – which is approximately $500 million less per year than a plan that passed the Senate in early June by a 45-5 vote – lacked support in the Senate.
“We don’t think it’s sufficient revenue,” Pileggi said. “We think the bare minimum is what was in” the Senate plan.
With those bills stalled, lawmakers focused on moving a spending plan through by midnight Sunday.
The Senate approved the Republican-written proposal on a 33 to 17 vote, while other budget-related legislation awaited action, including bills that would ensure the money is available and can be spent.
The plan would increase spending by $719 million, or 2.6 percent, over the current year, largely for additional health care for the poor, social services, public employee pensions, prisons and public schools.
The spending bill is $65 million less than what Corbett proposed in February, and assumes retirement and pension costs will be substantially lower than Corbett has projected. Democrats have sought, unsuccessfully, to free up even more money for schools and other programs by delaying business tax cuts and counting on savings by approving a federally funded expansion of Medicaid eligibility.
The Senate also approved legislation to potentially expand Medicaid eligibility to hundreds of thousands of adult Pennsylvanians under the 2010 federal health care law.
With staunch opposition among House Republicans, the issue could become a sticking point as lawmakers consider the other budget-related bills.