Pennsylvania Democrats fail to amend budget

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HARRISBURG -- If Democrats controlled the House, they would pass a budget that boosts funding for K-12 and higher education and for human services while accounting for an expansion of Medicaid eligibility under the federal health care law.

As it stands, the minority party did not even get to vote Monday on its package of wide-ranging amendments to the budget for the fiscal year starting July 1.

House rules do not allow overall spending to be increased after the budget leaves committee, and so Speaker Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, ruled that the proposal by Rep. Joe Markosek of Monroeville, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, was out of order.

An attempt by Mr. Markosek to return the budget to committee, so his amendment could be considered, failed, 109-90, on a party-line vote.

The House also declined to allow a vote on a proposal by Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, to account for additional federal funds and reductions in state spending from an expansion of Medicaid in Pennsylvania.

Gov. Tom Corbett has said he will not agree to make more Pennsylvanians eligible through the health care law unless the federal government agrees to changes.

The House is expected to vote today on its general appropriations bill, which would spend $578 million more than the current year's budget, an increase of 2.1 percent, and about $100 million less than the proposal Mr. Corbett made in February.

The state budget may not see another floor vote until the end of June. Mr. Corbett again met in private Monday with Republican legislative leaders to discuss the budget and the governor's three main legislative initiatives: disbanding the state system of liquor sales, enacting funding increases for transportation infrastructure and reducing the cost of statewide public employee pension plans.

Once the House passes its budget, those conversations most likely will continue with the goal of reaching consensus before the Senate takes up the bill, said Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware.

House Democrats would have increased spending $378 million over the Republican budget, mostly on K-12 education but also on colleges and universities and on various human service programs.

The caucus proposed paying for its spending increases through savings to the state under Medicaid expansion, changes designed to make the state liquor system more profitable and freezing the phase-out of the capital stock and franchise tax, among other steps.

"The governor's budgets have been very, very disappointing, and [the House Republican budget] just continues the misery for a lot of people in this commonwealth," Mr. Markosek said on the floor.

"It's a budget of missed opportunities. It's a budget of a lot of things that we could have, would have and should have done, but over the last two years we just haven't done," he said.

This is the first state budget process of Mr. Corbett's term in which House Democrats have proposed a formal budget amendment, Mr. Markosek said.

House Democratic leaders regularly say they are left out of discussions about major legislative business.

"We were told we weren't invited into the room for the negotiations because we don't have an amendment," Mr. Markosek said. "Well, this year we have an amendment, and we expect to be invited into the room."

electionspa - state

Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com or 717-787-2141.


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