Budget enacted: A mixed bag of spending meets the deadline

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It could have been worse. That's the best that can be said with certainty about Pennsylvania's 2012-13 budget.

Worse was on the table for months, with Gov. Tom Corbett's February proposal that would have taken big cuts out of public school districts and state universities for the second consecutive year. But the spending plan enacted by the Legislature and signed by the governor just before midnight on June 30 was $500 million larger, at $27.66 billion, due to higher-than-expected revenue collections this spring.

That means Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities and its state-related schools -- including the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State -- sidestepped a 20 percent cut and instead will receive the same level of funding they got in 2011-12. It's not as much as they wanted, given the big cuts they absorbed under the budget adopted one year ago, but it's enough that they've agreed to keep any tuition hikes low for the fall. The board of Community College of Allegheny County already has decided not to raise tuition at all for the coming academic year, a goal that the other schools should share.

Similarly, the new budget keeps funding essentially flat for public schools while sending significantly more dollars to the districts to cover the cost of their pension program. Again, better than a cut in educational line items, but still a challenge for districts trying to meet their obligations to students without saddling property owners with higher taxes.

The budget also restored $84 million in allocations to community-based welfare programs that had been on the chopping block and it extends the age that young people in foster care can receive some support to 21, from 18.

However, overall human service programs for the state's 67 counties will be cut by 10 percent. Particularly mean-spirited was elimination of the $150 million program that had provided short-term cash payments of $200 a month to help poor, disabled Pennsylvanians get back on their feet.

Gov. Corbett's attempt to switch from line-item budgeting for human services to block grants was not enacted statewide, although up to 20 counties have the option of trying that approach under a pilot program. The governor had argued that block grants would have given counties more flexibility, but critics complained that the change would have made it easier to hide cuts from the public.

Hiding details from the public could have been the theme of this year's budget process, something that is not new but that is nonetheless reprehensible and frustrating to taxpayers.

When a governor announces a budget proposal in February, hundreds of pages of documentation are included, with details on all line items. That's followed by analysis by recipients, legislators and others across the state, then a series of public hearings.

But the actual budget is worked out behind closed doors by legislative leaders and representatives from the governor's office, and it will be weeks until all of the ramifications of the enacted budget are known.

Details will trickle out, long after lawmakers have abandoned Harrisburg for the summer, on the full impact of a spate of measures adopted at the last minute. This year, they include the governor's plan to link public school teacher performance reviews to student achievement; expansion of the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program to $100 million, to encourage businesses to donate toward private-school scholarships; and the last-minute ban on natural gas drilling in parts of southeastern Pennsylvania.

Untouched in all of the last-minute action was Pennsylvania's enormous transportation funding crisis. No action was taken on the recommendations of a governor's task force that would have provided money to repair decrepit bridges and deteriorating roadways, and there was no public discussion of whether the state intends to provide help to curtail the largest service cuts in the Allegheny County Port Authority's 48-year history.

Yes, lawmakers and Gov. Corbett enacted the state's 2012-13 budget on time and without a tax increase, the second straight year that's been accomplished. Some Pennsylvanians will applaud that. But on balance, given the known cuts, the unknown details and the unfinished business, it's not much to celebrate.

opinion_editorials

First Published July 3, 2012 12:00 AM


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