By John Finnerty
CNHI Harrisburg Bureau
A $28.4 billion Pennsylvania budget plan for the fiscal year that does not raise taxes has passed the Legislature on the final day of the fiscal year. Late Sunday, the plan was awaiting the signature of Gov. Tom Corbett.
Lawmakers have failed to take action on any of the three major policy issues identified by Gov. Tom Corbett in his budget address. The push for a multibillion-dollar transportation plan unraveled Saturday in the state House. With no movement on transportation in the House, leaders in the Senate have refused to move on legislation that would dismantle the state liquor monopoly. Pension reform, the third policy issue identified by Corbett, hasn’t gotten traction in either the House or the Senate. Finally, the Senate passed a revision to the Welfare Code that creates a pathway for Medicaid expansion but Republicans in the House oppose expansion.
The gridlock on those issues overshadowed the success in passing the on-time budget without a tax increase. Lawmakers are due to remain in Harrisburg today to wrap up underlying code bills that support the budget.
The spending plan passed 33-17 in the Senate, with Mercer County Republican Bob Robbins voting for it. In the House, which passed it 111-92, local GOP Reps. Brad Roae, Michele Brooks and Greg Lucas all voted for it.
The spending plan increases spending by $719 million, or 2.6 percent, over the previous budget. The new spending is largely going toward increases for health care for the poor, social services, public employee pensions, prisons and public schools. Lawmakers who supported the plan noted that the spending plan also provides dollars to hire 290 state police troopers, and more money for the Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Democrat. The attorney general’s office will get $4.35 million for a child predator interceptor unit and another $2.5 million for a new mobile street crimes unit.
Democrats repeatedly argued that the budget doesn’t do enough to help schools.
Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer County, is a member of a House policy committee. In that role, he has emerged as a leading critic in the House on Corbett’s educational spending policies.
Longietti said that the bulk of increase funding for schools comes in the form of dollars for distressed schools, including those in Philadelphia.
“All of our schools are distressed, but only a fraction will get a share of that money,” Longietti said.
He noted that school districts in his home district have been forced to cut teachers and raised taxes. Hermitage School District has shed 31.5 teaching jobs, Longietti said.
The state share of the cost of education in Pennsylvania, 32 percent lags behind national averages. “We are leaving 68 percent of cost on local taxpayer,” Longietti said. “We provided 44 percent three years ago and national average is 48 percent.”
Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Cambria County, said the education funding problem could be solved by fixing the way the state pays public cyber charter schools.
“This is a public education special interest that continues to get fed no matter how bad our conditions are,” Barbin said.
State Rep. Fred Keller, R-Union County, said that those arguing that the government needs to spend more ought to pay more attention to the taxpayers who are footing the bill. “When they say, we need to protect the state’s most vulnerable, what they are really saying is ‘Taxpayer, you are not compassionate. We need more money,”’ Keller said.
Democrats tweeted out commentary during the debate.
“We also have a constitutional requirement to properly fund education,” Rep. Jaret Gibbons said in a tweet as the debate on the budget began.
“Fifteen thousand laid off teachers, larger class sizes and higher property taxes don’t equal GOP claims of ‘historic’ education funding. More Republican math,” said Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Cambria County.
Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria, was one of six Democrats who voted for the budget.
Wozniak said that while he didn’t like everything in the plan, there were enough good things, including the increased funding for the attorney general.
Finnerty works in the Harrisburg Bureau for Community Newspapers Holding Inc. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @cnhipa.