Work continues today on key bills before spending plan goes to Corbett
June 30, 2012 5:45 PM
Bradley C Bower/Associated Press
Senate Majority Leader Domini Pileggi, R-Delaware, seated left center, and Senate Minority leader Jay Coste, D-Allegheny, standing right, conduct a rules committee meeting on the state budget earlier today.
By Laura Olson and Karen Langley Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau
HARRISBURG -- After months of strong revenue collections and legislative wrangling, a state spending plan $500 million higher than Gov. Tom Corbett's initial proposal awaits his signature.
The state Senate on Friday approved the $27.66 billion budget that restores funding for higher education and reduces cuts to welfare, delivering it to the governor's desk, but without a set of accompanying legislation.
The current budget was the first passed on time since the prior governor, Ed Rendell, took office -- a point of pride for Mr. Corbett when he signed his freshman appropriations package 13 minutes before the deadline.
Senate approval of the spending bill, which passed on a vote of 32-17, puts the Republican-controlled Legislature and administration on the cusp of achieving their second on-time budget by the deadline tonight.
As the Senate debated some measures and wrapped up work on others, including one to create a 25-year tax credit for Shell Oil Co. and other ethane-processing facilities, the House was making a last-minute addition that would temporarily prevent oil and gas drilling permits from being issued in southeastern Pennsylvania.
The new provision would require a study by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and votes in Bucks and Montgomery counties before drilling permits could be approved for the South Newark Basin.
The basin has garnered attention from at least one drilling company, and a recent U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the formation could contain 876 billion cubic feet of natural gas.
Lawmakers got their first glimpse of the proposal on Friday, and Democratic Rep. Jesse White, who represents a drilling-heavy region of Washington County, immediately criticized the proposal as favoring southeastern Pennsylvania over the Marcellus boom towns elsewhere in the state.
The bill containing the drilling prohibition is expected to be signed into law as soon as today, along with other budget measures.
The spending portion completed on Friday would reverse the deepest cuts proposed by the governor -- those to public schools and state-supported colleges. Those schools will see funding remain at this year's levels, while certain county welfare dollars will shrink by 10 percent and cash assistance for poor and disabled Pennsylvanians will disappear.
The state's environmental and conservation agencies will see slight reductions for the second year in a row. A new class of state police cadets would be funded. And the Department of Corrections will not receive more state dollars than the previous year for the first time in more than a decade.
Republican senators described the budget, which increases state spending by less than 2 percent, as a responsible and sustainable proposal that does not increase taxes.
They pointed to the flat-funding for schools and the preservation of an account that pays for conservation projects as two victories given the still-rocky economy.
"There are some areas that I think we would have liked to do better," said Senate Appropriations Chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre. "You can only spend the money that you have, not the money that you wish you had."
While Democrats called the final budget an improvement over the governor's plan, which proposed deeper cuts to education and human services, they continued to argue that the state could indeed afford to spend more on education and human services.
"It's simplistic and superficial to say, 'This is what we have [to spend],'" said Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park. "No, it's not what we have. What we have is based on what we think our needs, what our capabilities are, what our priorities are. Apparently the governor was adamant that this is what we have, and it was $517 million less."
While the spending bill is completed, other legislation -- on tax, welfare and education policy -- still is needed to enact it. Bills to fund the state-related universities, including the University of Pittsburgh, also are awaiting final passage.
Those institutions, along with Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities, will receive level funding next year after an initial proposal by Mr. Corbett that would have delivered cuts of 30 and 20 percent.
The governor gathered with university leaders at the Capitol on Friday to applaud the restoration and accompanying voluntary limits to tuition increases in the coming year. While Pitt's board of trustees won't set tuition until its meeting in two weeks, Chancellor Mark Nordenberg said any increase would remain beneath the index.
Mr. Corbett reaffirmed to reporters Friday morning that he would not sign the spending bill without its accompanying legislation. Asked how confident he was that the whole package would reach his desk in time, the governor hesitated.
"Well ... yeah, I'm fairly confident," he said. "But I also thought we were going to be done on the 13th of June. It seems like they have to have deadlines. So now we have a deadline, don't we? It is a pretty hard deadline."