HARRISBURG – The state General Assembly on Thursday sent the governor a $25.8 billion spending plan intended to provide funding to run most government agencies for five months, as state leaders push off long-term decisions while trying to get a better sense of the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus epidemic.
In addition, lawmakers approved a plan to spend $2.6 billion in federal stimulus funding to help the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That includes $225 million for small business assistance, $632 million intended to help the state’s senior population and $260 million to help those with intellectual disabilities.
The move comes one day before the first 18 counties in the state move from the yellow phase into the green phase of Gov. Tom Wolf’s reopening strategy. Wolf announced earlier this week that on Friday he plans to hold his first in-person press conference since he closed government offices in mid-March. He has already announced that all of the state will be moved by June 5 from the red phase of his reopening strategy to the green and yellow phases, with relaxed restrictions.
Earlier this week, Wolf said the state needed to put off a full-year budget while officials determine how bad the economic crisis will be, to allow for delayed tax payments to arrive and to see if the federal government is going to provide additional stimulus funding.
Lyndsay Kensinger, a Wolf spokeswoman, said the governor intends to sign the main budget bill.
“Part of our clarity will come when the shutdown ends and businesses start up again,” said Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre County. “Part of it will be what Washington, D.C., does.”
Under the state spending plan, while most agencies only get five months of funding, the state will be providing a full-year of funding for basic education for schools.
Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, said that having a budget in place provides “predictability and consistency” for businesses, taxpayers and others who depend on the state government.
“It is clear that the repercussions from Gov. Wolf’s shutdown of the economy during the last several months necessitates a closer look at revenue impacts throughout the remainder of 2020,” Scarnati said.
School groups welcomed the move to provide a full year of funding for schools.
“This commitment from our state leaders will help districts keep educators and support staff on the job, meeting the needs of students when schools reopen,” said Rich Askey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.
“The effects of the current economic crisis and the costs of the pandemic are already devastating to many school districts — particularly to the low-wealth districts with little or no cushion and bare-bone staffing,” said Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center in Philadelphia.
Corman said that while he’s been critical of much of the way the Wolf administration has handled the state’s response to the crisis “to be fair, I want to give him credit today” for working with lawmakers to determine how to best put the stimulus funding to use.
The move to pass a short-term budget was defended by state leaders from both parties.
State Sen. Vince Hughes, D-Philadelphia, said that considering the circumstances, the state simply didn’t have a better option than passing a short-term budget and waiting to see how the situation plays out.
“This is the right decision for this time,” he said.