Push on to pass state budget on time

GOP has lots to iron out before June 30

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HARRISBURG -- The countdown is on for state lawmakers and the governor to approve next year's spending plan by the June 30 deadline.

They all agree on one point: After eight years of budget debates that dragged through the summer under former Gov. Ed Rendell, this one has to get wrapped up on time.

But even with Republicans controlling both chambers and the governor's office, there's plenty of details still to negotiate.

Should we spend or save the $540 million that the state so far has collected from rosier-than-expected tax returns? Which of Gov. Tom Corbett's much-contested cuts to education and human services should be restored?

And will the still-green governor hold out on agreeing to more spending until lawmakers promise to move on one of his priorities, like his school voucher bill? Will the veteran lawmakers insist on a shale-drilling impact fee that the governor has yet to support?

Those discussions will begin in earnest this week. The state House approved a budget proposal in late May, turning the spotlight now to their more moderate counterparts in the Senate.

Republican leaders there will be presenting a revised version of the House plan to their members after they return to session Monday. Once they've finalized a Senate GOP plan, negotiations with the governor and other legislative leaders will follow shortly, said Senate Appropriations Chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre.

"If all the planets align, I don't see any reason why we can't have a general appropriations bill begin moving the week of the 13th," Mr. Corman said

Senate Democrats have been outlining which programs they believe deserve more funding since before the ink was dry on the House plan's passage. Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, says they're focused on restoring cuts to education, human services and job-creation programs.

That can be done by using "maybe half" of what now is expected to be an additional $600 million from this year's state revenues, Mr. Costa said. He'd like to see between $150 million and $200 million of that added back to funding for school districts and universities.

While the House plan restored half of the proposed 50 percent cuts to the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State, members from both Senate caucuses say they'd like to see those schools and the State System of Higher Education colleges take even less of a hit.

Also on the Democrats' funding wish-list is restoring money for school tutoring and dual-enrollment programs, and for services like rape-crisis centers. Republicans, while careful not to get ahead of their caucus discussions this week, point to more aid for rural school districts, as well as funds for hospitals.

Mr. Corman said there's still more number-crunching to do before determining whether the state can afford to use a portion of the surplus revenues to boost those programs. But his colleague, Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, was more enthusiastic in a Twitter post last week, stating that "some surplus dollars need to be used to soften the impact of budget cuts."

Some accounting changes could help with concerns about using a portion of the surplus. The governor's $27.3 billion budget includes about $300 million in programs paid for by annual payments from the tobacco lawsuit settlement. If those programs are paid for through a separate account instead of the state's General Fund, part of the surplus could be used without increasing the budget's total cost.

Mr. Corbett has said consistently that he will not budge from his $27.3 billion total, though he'll consider changes to how much individual programs receive.

But in Harrisburg, a budget is always more than just a budget -- it's also the annual political leverage point. Any policy initiative that needs additional help to go the final yards is a candidate to get worked into that discussion.

Mr. Scarnati already has linked his gas-drilling impact fee to the negotiations, telling reporters that he doubts a budget can pass without approving financial help for local governments with heavy drilling activity.

Meanwhile, the governor is headed toward the midway point of his first year with uncertainty from lawmakers on when he may see further action on his major initiatives, including a plan to create private-school vouchers and proposed changes to liability rules in civil lawsuits.

Democrats have joined Mr. Scarnati in pushing for some form of tax or fee on drillers. "The longer we wait to do something, the impacts will continue without the ability to provide some kind of revenue to our communities," Mr. Costa said.

Mr. Corman said a shale tax or fee is unlikely to get done unless it is connected with the budget talks. But he noted that doing so also takes support from the governor, who so far hasn't indicated he's ready to consider such a proposal.


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


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