State Senate Passes Budget 39-8, Restores Some Corbett Cuts

Sen. Jake Corman (R-Centre), Appropriations Committee Chairman

Thanks to better-than-anticipated revenues, the Pa. Senate was able to pass a General Fund budget bill of $27.7 billion, nearly 2 percent higher than Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget, which would restore many of the proposed cuts the governor made in February.

The plan, made possible by the securing of an unexpected extra $900 million in tax revenue, would be in effect for the Fiscal Year 2012-2013, which begins July 1.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. Jake Corman said that although the budget is higher than last year (by about 2 percent), it is still less expensive than the budget passed in 2008, and that changes were implemented only when it was realized that program restorations could be made without raising taxes.

“The budget reaffirms our commitment to keeping spending in line with revenues, and continues to acknowledge that we cannot increase the burden on taxpayers,” Corman said in a press release.

At the top of the priority list was putting money back into education (both higher and early childhood) and social services programs.

Corman said the budget maintains last year’s level of higher education funding, and that the presidents of Pitt, Penn State and Temple, as well as the State System of Higher Education chancellor, promised to minimize tuition increases at no higher than the inflation rate.

Corbett’s more conservative proposal would have cut 20 percent ($230 million combined) in taxpayer aid money to state universities.

The Republicans’ bill also keeps intact $84 million for human services in each county that would have been eliminated entirely, albeit with a 10 percent cut. $100 million would also be reinstated for public schools – half for aid to full-day kindergarten, and half for “distressed” public schools, a list of which has not been determined.

And despite a 2 percent cut in Medicaid reimbursements for hospitals and nursing homes, the budget would also restore tens of millions of dollars toward the cost of admitting Medicaid users.

Not all of Gov. Corbett’s plans were thwarted, though, as the budget keeps intact Corbett’s proposed $275 million business tax cut along with most of his cuts to public school aid.

Corbett expressed his displeasure with the Senate’s passing of the bill, saying rising costs (including those for public employee pensions, debt payments, etc.) set a bad spending precedent.

Asked about the Senate proposal, Corbett held his cards close to the vest, saying only that it would be a starting point for negotiations and a ceiling for spending.

“Here’s the amount of money [the state has to spend],” he told the Morning Call. “Who are you going to take it from? That’s the discussion to have with the Legislature who are you going to take from and who are you going to give back. There are constituencies all across the board. Those are discussions you have in negotiations.”

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai agreed. As he told the Morning Call:

“The Senate bill is a step in the right direction,” he said, adding that “It’s important that we find some consensus among members of the House on this [budget].”

Turzai outlined three spending priorities for the House GOP: the partial restoration of some funding for K-12 education, higher education and some welfare spending, particularly for the mentally handicapped.

He said that “any dollars going to the state system and the state-relateds should be tied to tuition,” whether or not the schools received their full funding. That differed from Corman’s earlier statement that if the universities saw reduced funding, he would consider the tuition deal “off.”

The House could consider its own budget proposal as early as May 22, Turzai said.

Though many cuts opposed by Democrats remain – several programs they lobbied for were eliminated or suffered millions in cuts –

A $150 million temporary cash assistance program for poor adults was eliminated, and the budget also puts a cash assistance program that provides the only income for 68,000 people on the chopping block. The program helps people recovering from disability, domestic violence or addiction.

Still, a majority of Democrats (12 of 20) – who lobbied for an additional $250 million for child care and social services, in addition to the aforementioned cash assistance program – voted for the bill, which passed by a 39-8 majority.

The eight ‘nay’ votes all came from Democrats.

Sen. Wayne D. Fontana (D-Allegheny) was one of the nine Dems who voted for it, saying that while far from perfect, it was a “big improvement” on what Gov. Corbett proposed and a sign that the Democrats can play a part in the compromise.

“I voted for this improved budget because it makes crucial restorations for basic schools funding, important human services and programs and without raising taxes or incurring debt.”

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