HARRISBURG – The Pennsylvania state government’s new fiscal year started Tuesday and arrived with an election-year budget bill approved in a rigidly partisan vote by the Republican-controlled Legislature, but not Gov. Tom Corbett’s signature or a clear picture of what he planned to do with it.
The Republican governor, who used to boast about his perfect record in signing budgets on time, said early Tuesday that he would not immediately sign the $29.1 billion spending plan lawmakers sent him.
“We have to take a look at it,” Corbett said as he left the Capitol around 1 a.m. “There was not an agreed to budget, necessarily, to the details, so we’re going to look at it.”
His office remained silent about its plans Tuesday night and Corbett stayed out of sight during the day as lawmakers continued their work. The administration released a statement saying that state agencies were continuing normal operations and that employees would be paid and on the job.
The state constitution bars the government from making most payments without the authorization of a budget.
The government can keep funding its most important public health and safety functions, including prisons, state police and medical care for the poor. Debt payments and pension checks will continue to be sent out and self-funding agencies, such as the Liquor Control Board, will not be affected. During a 2009 budget stalemate, about 80,000 employees began seeing their biweekly paychecks diminish and vendors began missing payments in the third week of July.
After 10 days, the constitution allows a bill to become law without the governor’s signature. Meanwhile, senators left Harrisburg with no immediate plans to return before the fall, unless the House makes changes to a key budget-related bill awaiting passage in that chamber Tuesday night.
The spending increase in the plan, supported by more than $2.5 billion in one-time stopgaps to plug a massive deficit, would go toward public schools, prisons, pension obligations, health care for the poor and social safety-net programs. It does not increase taxes.
What happens next is unclear, and Corbett said he will consider every option, from vetoing the budget to issuing a line-item veto that scratches certain funds from it.
The 108-95 House vote on Monday night and the 26-24 Senate tally earlier in the day followed nearly straight party lines and culminated hours of often heated debate.
All 115 Democrats in the 253-member Legislature voted against the budget, saying it is built on gimmickry while it punishes the working poor and does little to reverse budget-balancing cuts in aid to schools and safety-net programs that Republicans engineered over the last three years under Corbett.
Four Philadelphia-area Republicans voted against it, while the rest of the 134 GOP lawmakers voted for it.
Republicans said it strikes an appropriate balance among the state’s competing needs, and is a responsible and smart placeholder for a difficult fiscal period until an improving economy delivers relief.
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 just-ended fiscal year, rather than the new fiscal year, making the entire package a $943 million increase, or about 3.3 percent.
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 that Corbett proposed in February.
Democrats had 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.
Instead, Republicans developed a no-new-taxes plan that cuts business taxes and fills the gap by postponing nearly $400 million in Medicaid payments, draining reserves and raiding off-budget programs that support business expansions, volunteer fire companies, improvements to public parks and forests, anti-tobacco efforts and services for the elderly.