Pa. budget passage likely today; GOP claims win on taxes

Posted: July 16, 2007

HARRISBURG - More than two weeks past deadline, the $27.2 billion state spending plan was approved unanimously last night by a joint House-Senate committee, clearing one last hurdle to final passage expected in both chambers today.

The 2007-2008 fiscal blueprint, a 3.2 percent increase in spending over last year, dedicates hundreds of millions in new funding for transportation, education, welfare, prisons and pensions.

The increase bumps up to 4.4 percent with an additional $300 million in mass transit subsidies that are being diverted to a special fund for transit.

But Republicans who control the Senate say they are pleased there are no new taxes and spending is reduced in most other government agencies and programs.

Senate Republicans, whose primary goal was to rein in state spending, claimed victory last night, having defeated seven tax increases proposed by Gov. Rendell.

"This is a very conservative budget," said Sen. Gibson Armstrong (R., Lancaster), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "I think it restricts spending."

He said while there were noticeable increases in the public welfare (3.5 percent) and education (5.8 percent) budgets, all other spending was reduced by 1.1 percent.

Among the winners: the Philadelphia School District, which will see an increase of $77 million over last year.

House Appropriations Chairman Dwight Evans (D., Phila.) said Philadelphia schools did "extremely well" but hastened to add, so did other school districts.

"There are investments in the key areas of education and economic development across the Commonwealth," he said.

Funding totaling $880 million also was secured for the Pennsylvania Convention Center expansion.

Still to be considered is a separate bill that represents about a 20 percent increase in state funding for highways, bridges and mass transit over the next decade.

The plan relies on borrowing by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission against future revenue from tolls imposed on motorists traveling on Interstate 80.

With new House and Senate rules enacted earlier this year, neither chamber could immediately pass the budget bill, leading to concerns about a deadline to meet the state payroll this week.

State Treasury officials said the budget needed to be completed by noon today to ensure on-time Friday paychecks for thousands of state employees.

"There is a small window beyond the much ballyhooed deadline," said Rendell spokesman, Chuck Ardo.

The Senate, which has a six-hour rule for taking up amended bills, could act on the budget as early as 8 a.m. this morning when it reconvenes.

House Majority leader Bill DeWeese (D., Greene) said the chamber's members may choose to suspend their 24-hour rule for considering amended bills.

Ardo said the governor would sign the bill as quickly as he could after its passage.

The budget impasse that dragged on beyond the June 30 deadline led to a partial government shutdown and the one-day furlough of 24,000 state employees last week.

Agreement on the budget framework was reached last Monday night as part of a wider deal to reopen government services and end the furlough.

In other action yesterday, an effort to add casinos to the list of locations that would be exempted from a proposed statewide smoking ban failed as the state House of Representatives debated for the third consecutive day how strict to make the legislation.

Rep. Timothy Solobay (D., Washington) argued that covering casinos with a ban would hurt their profits, noting that Pennsylvania legalized gambling in part to help reduce homeowners' property taxes.

The amendment was rejected, 137-62, with opponents arguing that allowing smoking in casinos would jeopardize the health of employees.


Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.

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