By John Finnerty
CNHI Capitol Correspondent
HARRISBURG — A $28.4 billion Pennsylvania budget plan for the fiscal year that does not raise taxes has passed the Legislature on the final day of the fiscal year.
But Gov. Tom Corbett went 0-for-3 on the big policy issues he’d staked out in his budget speech – transportation funding, dismantling the liquor monopoly and reforming the public sector pension system
Lawmakers are due to remain in Harrisburg to wrap up work on some bills connected to the budget, but Corbett said nothing will happen on transportation or liquor privatization until the fall.
Corbett pledged to fight on, saying that he has been encouraged by the progress for the remainder of the 2013-14 legislative session if needed. Corbett is up for re-election in November 2014.
“This is just the first quarter,” Corbett said after signing the budget.
PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch said that because the legislature didn’t pass transportation funding, 1,200 bridges will get weight limits placed on them and the train route between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh is in jeopardy.
Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria County, is the Democratic chairman of the transportation committee.
“We’re disappointed,” Wozniak said. “Of all the issues on the table, transportation was going to be the big job stimulator. And the closer you get to the time to circulate election petitions, the less likely anything will get done. And that’s a lost construction season, maybe two.”
The push for a multi-billion dollar transportation plan unraveled Saturday in the state House. With no movement on transportation in the House, leaders in the Senate have refused to move on legislation that would dismantle the state liquor monopoly. Pension reform, the third policy issue identified by Corbett, hasn’t gotten traction in either the House or the Senate. Finally, the Senate passed a revision to the Welfare Code that creates a pathway for Medicaid expansion but Republicans in the House oppose expansion.
The gridlock on those issues overshadowed the success in passing the on-time budget without a tax increase. Lawmakers are due to remain in Harrisburg Monday to wrap up underlying code bills that support the budget.
Locally, state Reps. Michele Brooks, R-Jameston, and Dick Stevenson, R-Grove City voted for the budget. Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Hermitage, voted against it. Sen. Bob Robbins, R-Salem Township, supported the Senate plan.
The spending plan increases spending by $719 million, or 2.6 percent, over the previous budget. The new spending is largely going toward increases for health care for the poor, social services, public employee pensions, prisons and public schools. Lawmakers who supported the plan noted that the spending plan also provides dollars to hire 290 state police troopers, and more money for the Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Democrat. The attorney general’s office will get $4.35 million for a child predator interceptor unit and another $2.5 million for a new mobile street crimes unit.
Democrats repeatedly argued that the budget doesn’t do enough to help schools.
Longietti, a member of a House policy committee, has emerged as a leading critic in the House on Corbett’s educational spending policies.
Longietti said that the bulk of increase funding for schools comes in the form of dollars for distressed schools, including those in Philadelphia.
“All of our schools are distressed, but only a fraction will get a share of that money,” Longietti said.
He noted that school districts in his home district have been forced to cut teachers and raised taxes. The Hermitage School District has shed 31.5 teaching jobs, Longietti said.
The state share of the cost of education in Pennsylvania, 32 percent lags behind national averages. “We are leaving 68 percent of cost on local taxpayer,” Longietti said. “We provided 44 percent three years ago and national average is 48 percent.”
Rep. Michele Brooks, R-Jamestown, took issue with that kind of thinking.
“Contrary to claims that may say otherwise, education is being prioritized, with approximately $10 billion being set aside for kindergarten through 12th-grade education, an additional $122 million than what was originally proposed earlier this year. Nearly 40 percent of the state budget is spent on K-12 and higher education," she said in a statement issued after she voted in favor of the plan.
Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Cambria County, said the education funding problem could be solved by fixing the way the state pays public cyber charter schools.
“This is a public education special interest that continues to get fed no matter how bad our conditions are,” Barbin said.
State Rep. Fred Keller, R-Union County, said that those arguing that the government needs to spend more ought to pay more attention to the taxpayers who are footing the bill. “When they say, we need to protect the state’s most vulnerable, what they are really saying is ‘Taxpayer, you are not compassionate. We need more money,”’ Keller said.
Rep. Dick Stevenson, R-Grove City, issued a statement after voting for the budget: “During our public hearings and intense deliberations on the new state budget, we kept the taxpayer at the forefront of our decisions. This budget, passed without any tax increases, reflects the status of our economy right now and does not add to the burden of our hard-working citizens.”