By Jan Murphy
The Patriot News
(June 28) One chamber down. One chamber and Gov. Tom Corbett’s signature to go.
Then, Pennsylvania will have a state spending plan in place for 2012-’13.
The state Senate is poised to vote today on the nearly $27.7 billion spending plan that the House approved 120-81 on Thursday.
It would increase spending by less than 2 percent, or $471 million, over this year’s budget. And it doesn’t require a tax increase to support it.
All House members from Cumberland, Dauphin, Perry, Lebanon and northern York county voted in favor of the spending portion of the budget, which maintains funding at current levels for public universities and most school districts. It even gives some of the financially struggling districts a little extra, enough in Harrisburg to whisk all-day kindergarten off the district’s chopping block.
It eliminates the state Department of Public Welfare’s cash assistance program and cuts $84 million — half of what Corbett had proposed cutting — for county-provided human services. It provides funding for 100 state police cadets to help address the trooper shortage.
The revenue bill to pay for the spending plan and an array of budget-related bills have yet to be approved.
Still, Republican lawmakers found a way Thursday to give Corbett an item from his wish list: a tax break that could exceed $1.7 billion for a petrochemical plant in western Pennsylvania. The Royal Dutch Shell PLC’s natural gas “cracker plant” would spark thousands of temporary construction jobs and thousands of positions in the plant and spinoff industries. The tax break would also be the state’s largest financial incentive ever.
Lawmakers also advanced a plan to assist cash-strapped schools.
Harrisburg School District, along with York, Chester-Upland and Duquesne, are immediately targeted to receive state assistance. The measure now goes to Corbett, who is likely to sign it into law.
It would provide for a chief recovery officer to be appointed to assist the district in developing a fiscal recovery plan. If the school board refuses to implement it, the secretary of education could petition the court to appoint a receiver.
Budget deadline looms
Lawmakers are facing a deadline of midnight Saturday to complete the budget bills and avoid the state losing its authority to pay certain vendors and services.
During a 3½-hour House debate, Democrats bemoaned the budget for not doing more to restore the severe education cuts in this year’s budget and its failure to impose new revenue sources on businesses to make that possible. Republicans argued it was a sustainable budget that doesn’t raise taxes and avoids the elimination of a $100 million block grant for schools and a 20- to 30-percent cut in funding for public universities that Corbett proposed.
The following is a collection of why midstate lawmakers voted for the budget bill:
- Rep. John Payne, R-Derry Twp.: “The best part is we’ve been able to restore the school funding cuts, which would have devastated our schools. They are struggling as it is. I thought that was a big plus. No tax increase is always a huge plus. And I liked the fact that we restored some of the cuts to human services.
- Rep. Scott Perry, R-Dillsburg: “I believe it responsibly covers all the services the citizens demand and meets our obligations to fund the pension systems while not raising taxes. There is also a commitment and language to work towards equalizing mental health/mental retardation funding for the southcentral region, which is very important to me.”
Perry noted that the mental health/mental retardation spending in York and Adams counties appears to be out of balance with other parts of the state. He also noted the budget would keep spending below the rate of inflation which prepares the state for “the tough times ahead that will be imposed on every taxpayer by virtue of today’s U.S. Supreme Court announcement” upholding the federal health care law.
- Rep. Sue Helm, R-Susquehanna Twp.: “I thought this was the best budget we’ve had yet. I think it’s very much accountable to the people of Pennsylvania. … What I liked best about it is we didn’t raise anybody’s taxes and there are no new taxes. Every meeting I’ve had with constituents lately, they talked about education and I think they will be happy we didn’t cut education.
- Rep. Stephen Bloom, R-North Middleton Twp.: “It’s a balanced budget that doesn’t raise taxes, and it actually cuts real inflation-adjusted spending for the second year in a row, so I can support it. However, bringing spending in line with revenues is only part of responsible budgeting and I would have preferred to see more emphasis on paying down future obligations, such as our looming state pension liabilities.”
- Rep. Ronald Buxton, D-Harrisburg: “Overall, it’s not a good budget for human services and education, but at least it’s $600 million better than what the governor originally proposed. And the fact that we were able to preserve the $2.5 million for the city of Harrisburg’s fire protection will help us tremendously with the ongoing structural budget problem in the city.”
- Rep. Glen Grell, R-Hampden Twp. “This [budget] does a very good job allocating the resources, establishing the priorities based on what we have available this year.”
Grell echoed the sentiments of his colleagues about restoring Corbett’s proposed funding cuts for schools and universities. He also was pleased to see it restored funding for hospitals, nursing homes and helps whittle away at the waiting list of intellectually disabled people for services. He also was happy to see the state fully fund its pension obligations and was glad to see some money was held in reserve to help address future liabilities, including transportation improvements.
- Rep. Mauree Gingrich, R-Cleona: She was especially happy with the spending plan’s treatment of schools, human services, and hospital. “This is a realistic budget. We’re using the money we have. We’re looking to the future for some of our liabilities that we know are ahead of us, they’re great, they’re many but … this is a realistic budget for this time.”