Corbett signs nearly $29 billion Pa. budget before deadline

No agreement on transportation, pensions, liquor store privatization, Medicaid

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HARRISBURG -- Gov. Tom Corbett signed a nearly $29 billion state budget with time to spare Sunday night as two major initiatives -- proposals to raise transportation revenue and allow private sales of wine and liquor -- remained lodged in the Legislature.

The governor had called on lawmakers to send him the transportation and liquor bills, along with reforms to the pension systems for state and school workers, along with the budget. But House Republicans, short on votes, said transportation funding would wait for the fall, while the Senate Republican leader, Dominic Pileggi, said his members would focus on the budget instead of passing a liquor bill.

When it became clear neither initiative would reach his desk Sunday, Mr. Corbett gathered House Republicans -- though not senators -- and reporters at 10 p.m. for his earliest budget signing yet. After demanding for months that lawmakers send him the policy bills by Sunday, Mr. Corbett claimed he was not disappointed.

He praised the House for passing a liquor bill and the Senate for its transportation plan, and said the issues would remain priorities for the remainder of the two-year legislative term.

"It's the end of the first quarter," he said. "We've got three more quarters to go."

Though the budget was signed, and the liquor and transportation bills apparently set aside, other issues remained in play. Bills to enact the budget remained in the House, which was scheduled to return today. One of those bills was approved Sunday by the Senate with a proposal requiring the state to apply for expanded Medicaid eligibility under the federal health care law, so long as certain conditions were met. House Republicans oppose broadening eligibility.

Mr. Corbett has said he will not agree to Medicaid expansion unless the federal government allows Pennsylvania to make changes to its program. He was noncommittal Sunday night on the Senate proposal, saying he would not agree to a plan without Medicaid reforms.

"I don't have a bill on my desk," Mr. Corbett said.

The governor brought his transportation secretary, Barry Schoch, to the budget signing. Mr. Schoch, who worked for months to sell legislators on the plan, said the lack of new transportation funding will result in more bridges weight-restricted and a Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg train route jeopardized.

"We just lost a construction season by not getting this done now," he said.

The Senate had approved a plan to raise billions in new annual revenue for the state's roads, bridges and mass transit systems, but Republicans in the House had little appetite for the bill. Leaders there said Saturday they had too few votes to pass their transportation bill without help from Democrats, who maintained it provides too little funding, particularly for mass transit. By Sunday night, Steve Miskin, a House Republican spokesman, said the issue would wait for the fall.

House Republicans celebrated in March when they approved legislation that would disband the state business in alcohol. After days wrangling votes, Senate Republicans succeeded in the early hours Saturday in an initial vote on a more gradual version of a liquor privatization plan.

But with transportation on hold and the budget deadline imminent, they had not brought up the bill for final passage. Late Sunday afternoon, Mr. Corbett took his appeal public, releasing a statement to the media in which he asked lawmakers to send him the Senate's version.

"I will proudly sign this bill into law," he said.

Minutes later, Mr. Pileggi said senators were concerned the House would not agree with its version of a liquor bill -- approved along party lines by all Republican senators -- and that taking up the legislation could dampen the House's interest in a transportation vote.

"It's not either timely or appropriate for us to shift our focus in the middle of dealing with budget-related legislation to non-budget-related matters on the afternoon of June 30th," Mr. Pileggi said.

The state budget, which spends about 2 percent more than this year, cleared the Senate 33-17, with the support of six Democrats. Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, said he was pleased the plan contained $122 million in additional funding for basic education. But other Democrats said the plan still fell short in providing for schools, and several complained they had too little time to review the final agreement.

The plan passed the House on a party-line vote, with the support of 111 Republicans and all 92 Democrats opposed.

The state budget increases funding for K-12 education and early childhood programs and maintains spending on higher education. It also provides for nearly 300 new state troopers and services for additional people with intellectual disabilities.

Accompanying legislation, which still awaits House approval, extends a phase-out of a tax on business assets. The capital stock and franchise tax was set to expire Jan. 1, but a tax bill that cleared the Senate on Sunday would extend the phase-out through this fiscal year and the next.

In addition to the transportation and liquor bills, Mr. Corbett had proposed changes designed to reduce the cost of pensions for state and public school employees. A proposal to enroll future employees in a 401(k)-style retirement plan cleared a Senate panel, while a House committee approved a plan with that transition as well as certain changes to the future benefits of current workers. But legislators involved in the issue said days ago they believed no agreement would be reached by the budget deadline.

"The only thing you have to know, the one word description for this budget is 'failure,' " said Rep. Joe Markosek, D-Monroeville, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. "Failure to the people of Pennsylvania."

Rep. Bill Adolph, R-Delaware and the appropriations chairman, said the plan was a responsible budget.

Mr. Corbett planned to sign the budget Sunday night.

In the House, several Democrats advocated for Medicaid expansion.

"We've got a chance to [take] 500,000 people and give them health care insurance, but because of ideology, we're going to opt-out instead of opt-in," said Rep. Ed Gainey, D-Lincoln-Lemington, while speaking against the budget.

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Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-2141. Kate Giammarise: kgiammarise@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise. First Published June 30, 2013 7:30 PM


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