Senate Republicans expected to unveil budget plan today

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HARRISBURG -- Those waiting on details of the state budget agreement had to be patient Sunday, as lawmakers reshuffled their agenda for the rare weekend work day.

Plans to consider two key budget measures in a Senate panel were scuttled. Staffers said that was due to delays in drafting those bills, which will contain the program funding levels agreed to by top GOP lawmakers and the governor last week.

That change of schedule left Democratic lawmakers, who have not been included in budget talks, with time to reiterate their calls for a Marcellus Shale gas tax and for more money to higher education.

And to remind their Republican counterparts that four days are left before the budget deadline.

When a bill to create a state spending database came up at a committee meeting Sunday, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jake Corman noted that money was in the budget to pay for the initiative.

"Anything else in the budget we need to know about?" asked Sen. Vincent Hughes, the ranking Democrat on that panel.

"All in due time," replied Mr. Corman.

That wait may be over today, with the Senate expected to unveil details of the spending plan. The Senate could approve it by Tuesday, giving the House two days to send it to the governor's desk.

Some additional details have trickled out on that plan, while other line-items were said to still be in flux over the weekend as bill-drafting began.

A final figure for basic K-12 education is not yet publicly available. But the $100 million for accountability block grants that the House added back in to the governor's proposal is expected to remain at that level.

School districts use those block grants to pay for full-day kindergarten programs, as well as services like tutoring.

Legislative leaders also were trying to squeeze out some additional assistance for poorer rural districts, as of late last week.

Another piece of that deal would raise an assessment on hospitals. That would help the state to draw down federal funds to pay for medical care given to the uninsured.

Meanwhile, lawmakers have begun to act on one portion that appears to be settled: funding for state colleges and universities.

Those schools would be cut less than under Mr. Corbett's budget but will still see dramatic reductions compared to last year.

The four state-related colleges -- University of Pittsburgh, Penn State University, Temple University and Lincoln University -- would see cuts of 19 percent.

Senate Democrats unsuccessfully offered amendments Sunday to boost that funding back to last year's levels.

Mr. Corman, whose district includes Penn State's main campus, said he would have liked to see more funding for those schools, "but in any compromise there are things that you like and things that you don't like."

Those measures will require some Democrats' support if they are to be approved this week. Unlike other legislation, those bills require a two-thirds vote in each chamber.

Both House and Senate Democrats are hoping to be more persuasive in their continued campaign to include a "fair and reasonable" drilling tax or fee.

Those lawmakers said Sunday that they will try to add a shale fee to the budget revenue bill, despite calls from the governor asking them not to.

While last year's budget package included a pledge to work on a severance tax in the fall, Democrats said stronger action was needed this year.

"I think we're beyond promises," said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills.


Laura Olson: lolson@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-4254.


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