Pa. House approves budget

  • By Marc Levy
    Associated Press
June 30, 2014

HARRISBURG – A $29.1 billion spending plan for Pennsylvania state government is on its way to the governor after winning House approval in a vote split largely along party lines.

It’s not clear whether Republican Gov. Tom Corbett will sign the measure. The fiscal year ended at midnight.

The 108-95 vote in the House and the 26-24 Senate tally followed sharply partisan debates in both chambers that echoed the state’s gubernatorial campaign.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman William Adolph said the measure strikes an appropriate balance among the state’s competing needs without a tax increase.

Democrats charged that the bill relies too heavily on transfers, one-time revenues and gimmickry to balance the budget.

Spending could increase by $943 million, more than 3 percent, mainly for public schools, prisons, public pension obligations, health care for the poor and social services.

The vote was 26-24, reflecting a narrow Republican majority. Every Republican voted for the bill, except for Sen. Charles McIlhinney, R-Bucks, who joined every Democrat in opposing it.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre, framed the budget as a responsible and smart placeholder for a difficult fiscal period until an improving economy delivers relief.

“This budget will reflect where we are,” Corman said.

The spending increase in the Republicans’ budget bill would largely go toward public schools, prisons, public pension obligations, health care for the poor and social safety-net programs.

Senate Republicans negotiated the budget plan behind closed doors with House Republican leaders and GOP Gov. Tom Corbett.

Frozen out, Democrats objected to the lack of a new tax on the booming natural gas industry and charged the plan will do little to reverse budget-balancing cuts in aid to schools and safety-net programs that Republicans engineered under Corbett. They also complained about the distribution of new public school money that delivers higher percentage increases to suburban, rather than urban, schools.

Philadelphia Sen. Vincent Hughes, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, called it a “flim-flam sham” budget built on shaky assumptions and the backs of the working poor.

“If you have, you get more,” Hughes said. “But if you don’t have, you get less.”

Significant portions of the Republicans’ budget plan remained a mystery because a large companion bill, which outlines some of the budget plan’s biggest financial maneuvers, had not been unveiled.

The big task for Republicans was to address a massive and unexpected collapse in tax collections that tore a gaping $1.7 billion hole into the $29.4 billion budget plan Corbett proposed in February.

Democrats proposed making up the shortfall by expanding Medicaid under the 2010 federal health care law, delaying planned tax cuts for businesses and increasing taxes on natural gas extraction and sales of tobacco products.

While Senate Republicans entertained the idea of a tax increase, House Republicans blocked it. So instead, Republicans developed a no-new-taxes plan that cuts business taxes and fills the gap by assembling more than $2 billion in one-time items, including postponing Medicaid payments, raiding off-budget programs and draining reserves.

That is the highest dollar figure for such stopgaps in any year, not counting the $6.9 billion in federal recession bailout dollars that came to Pennsylvania from 2009 to 2011, Democrats say.

Republicans are also projecting a rosy 3.5 percent increase in revenue collection next year. The current fiscal year’s tax collections lagged the previous year’s by nearly a full percentage point through 11 months.

Under the Republicans’ budget plan, spending would increase $723 million, or 2.5 percent, over the current year’s approved budget. Another $220 million would be added to the books of the nearly-ended fiscal year, rather than the new fiscal year, making the entire package a $943 million increase, or about 3.3 percent.

Elsewhere in the Capitol, lobbyists patrolled the Capitol’s corridors while Corbett and House Republican leaders continued to work to win enough votes for public pension legislation backed by the governor.

At one point, the sound of a demonstration by public school advocates from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh boomed through the building. As police looked on, they crowded the tiled hallway between the offices of House Speaker Sam Smith and House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, and chanted “Whose house? Our house!” and “Hey hey! Ho ho! This budget’s got to go!”



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