Pennsylvania Legislature now focused on state budget
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HARRISBURG -- With the primary campaigning done, Pennsylvania lawmakers will return to the Capitol today with one main agenda item for the remainder of their spring session -- completing the state budget.
There's a handful of other items also set to move forward in the state House of Representatives and Senate, dealing with business taxes, the unemployment compensation system, rules for charter schools and potentially even liquor sales.
But as the calendar turns to May, much of state government's attention will be squarely focused on the $27.1 billion proposed spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year.
Last summer marked the first time in nine years that the General Assembly and governor finalized a state budget before July 1, when the new fiscal year begins. The final pieces of legislation were approved late on June 30, and signed by Gov. Tom Corbett minutes before midnight.
"I believe we should start our conversation in a more focused way sooner," said Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, adding that doing so would allow officials "to finish in mid-June, not wait until the last hour of the last day."
Part of that process will start this week, when the new Independent Fiscal Office will release its revenue projections for the upcoming year. Mr. Pileggi said those figures can help kick-start the final budget discussions.
Lawmakers also are waiting to see how much revenues the state collects in May. State tax coffers have been receiving more money than last fiscal year, but so far they have come up short compared to growth estimates.
Any additional funds received above what was expected in February, when the governor introduced his budget, likely will be directed first toward education.
While the state money that school districts receive wasn't cut as dramatically as last year, higher education programs did take another hit. Republicans in both chambers say they'd like to see more funding for the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State University and the 14 state-owned colleges in the final budget.
Local school districts also are on the restoration list, after funds for some pre-K programs vanished in the governor's proposal. Certain human services for elderly or disabled residents could get beefed up in the eventual budget as well.
So where will those extra dollars come from without breaking the governor's no-tax-hike pledge?
"That's the challenge," Mr. Pileggi said. "We'll find out if there is additional funding available, which we believe there will be, and then we'll make a decision."
Democrats are urging the majority Republicans in each chamber to look broadly and also find more funds for the state's crumbling infrastructure and for Medicaid programs.
"We have to look at the need first and then let's talk about how we get there," said Brett Marcy, a spokesman for the House Democrats.
Beyond the annual budgetary battle, lawmakers also will be tackling a few other issues beginning this week.
First up in the state House is debate over a series of changes to how business taxes are structured. That proposal, among other changes, would reduce the corporate levy over six years and attempt to address the so-called "Delaware Loophole," a way in which companies shrink their tax burden by shifting royalties and similar payments to out-of-state holding companies.
"Our goal is to provide for a fairer tax environment, and to really be able to sell Pennsylvania," said House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods.
Democrats have pushed back against the bill, saying it creates other loopholes in its exceptions, though Republicans dispute that claim.
A proposal to privatize the state's liquor sales also remains high on Mr. Turzai's to-do list. An updated proposal is being crafted by House Republicans and the Corbett administration, and Mr. Turzai said he'd like it to be part of budget discussions.
Meanwhile, Senate Republicans plan to work on a measure that would shore up the state's unemployment compensation trust fund. Those benefits to jobless Pennsylvanians have been paid for using a $3 billion federal loan, which is costing the state in interest payments.
Mr. Pileggi also said he would like to send the governor several bills aimed at assisting distressed municipalities and reworking how charter schools are funded and authorized.
Another bill pending in Senate must be completed in the coming weeks if it is to be approved this session. The constitutional amendment to shrink the size of the Legislature must be approved before the summer break so the required advertisement period for such bills -- which must be approved in two consecutive sessions -- could occur this fall.
Reducing the number of lawmakers has general support from Mr. Pileggi, who said his caucus will be discussing the plan after they return.
First Published April 30, 2012 1:38 pm