A state budget by Saturday?

Governor, lawmakers still trying to reach agreement on specifics

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HARRISBURG -- Less than a week from the deadline for an on-time state budget, Gov. Tom Corbett lobbied for parts of his proposal, legislators addressed related bills, and observers waited for the numbers behind the broad agreement.

Mr. Corbett and the General Assembly have until Saturday night to deliver a budget paying for state government -- from public schools to human services to prisons -- in the year that starts July 1. While the governor and Republican leaders agreed last week to an overall spending level of $27.66 billion, on Monday they still were finalizing spreadsheets showing how much money would be appropriated for specific programs.

And Mr. Corbett continued pressing the House to agree with his plan to lump several welfare programs administered by counties into a single block grant. At a news conference with county commissioners, he argued that combining the funding lines would reduce administrative costs and allow local officials to target the money where it is most needed.

"That's why these ladies and gentlemen are here," he said. "They'll be out talking to members of the House and trying to convince them that this is a good idea, that we take the money that we have in Harrisburg, we send it out to the counties and let the counties manage it."

Immediately afterward, the Republican chairman of the House Human Services Committee held a news conference opposing the block grants. Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks, said the administration had not consulted with providers of services such as mental health care and treatment for drug and alcohol abuse -- or the people who receive them -- before proposing the change.

"This is a historic shift in the way we fund human services," he said. "I think we're moving way too fast. These are our most vulnerable citizens."

Mr. DiGirolamo said the block grants should first be tried in a pilot program.

Disagreement between the governor and House Republicans over the proposal to combine human services dollars was a significant part of the issues stymieing budget negotiators Monday. Still, Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, was confident that final differences would be sorted through today so that program funding could be distributed.

Another priority of the governor, a sentencing reform bill, passed the Senate in the evening and headed to the governor's desk. Among other changes, the legislation would bar sentencing people convicted only of low-level misdemeanors to state prison and reshape halfway houses as residences for inmates approved for parole. Speaking on the Senate floor, Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the changes were expected to save more than $250 million in the next five years.

Earlier in the day, appropriations bills for the state-supported universities progressed in the House. The legislation would keep funding at current levels, rather than making cuts initially proposed by Mr. Corbett, for the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State University and Temple University.

Another topic of budget negotiations, a proposal to expand a tax credit for businesses that contribute to scholarships for non-public schools, was the topic of a meeting of the House Education Committee. Rep. Jim Christiana, R-Beaver, described his plan to increase the level of available credits while creating a related program available to residents of the lowest-performing schools.

The plan drew critical questions from the committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. James Roebuck of Philadelphia, who described it as a "subsidy to private education."


Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com or 717-787-2141. Laura Olson contributed. First Published June 26, 2012 12:00 AM


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