Unfinished business in Harrisburg

July 1, 2013

Well, let’s all heave a sigh of relief that a state budget has been signed on time by Gov. Tom Corbett. There will be no rerun of the 2009 fiasco when a budget arrived on Gov. Ed Rendell’s desk 101 days late, nor will there be a replay of budget impasses of years past that saw state employees sidelined on furloughs while legislators bickered in Harrisburg.

But Corbett and his allies must be feeling a bit let down as some of their marquee priorities were left unfulfilled as the sand ran through the hourglass on this legislative session. The push to privatize wine and liquor sales in the commonwealth, an effort that is decades overdue, ended in a stalemate. An overhaul of the public employee pension system, which is untenable in its current form, came to no resolution, and ambitious plans to inject more money into Pennsylvania’s battered roads and bridges were placed back on the shelf. After affixing his signature to the $28 billion budget late Sunday, Corbett urged lawmakers to put these issues at the top of their to-do list as they venture back to Harrisburg in the fall – he didn’t call for a special session in the meantime – but there’s a good reason to worry that all three of these controversial issues will fall victim to inertia, particularly as the jockeying gets under way for the 2014 election season.

Nevertheless, there are some things in the state’s 2013-14 budget that are praiseworthy. Even while funding for higher education remained flat, public schools got a boost, with $122 million added to the $5.5 billion expenditure for education in grades K-12. With school funding having been hammered since the start of the economic downturn in 2008, this hopefully marks a turning point for school districts that have had to lay off teachers, increase class sizes and eliminate programs. Likely spurred by the killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December, $2 million has been added for school safety.

Public libraries in Pennsylvania will receive no additional dollars over the 2012-13 budget, but museums and other organizations charged with preserving our heritage will receive a little over $1 million more over the next 12 months. The Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, which handles everything from state hospitals and nursing homes to services for the disabled, will also be getting $334 million added on to its $11 billion allocation, which accounts for a little more than a third of the state’s entire budget.

So let’s hope lawmakers enjoy their time off, and return to Harrisburg with clear heads and determination to tackle the business that remains naggingly unfinished.



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