Finally, a budget in place for Pennsylvania

Both the Senate and the House approved the plan, which calls for no new taxes. Rendell is expected to sign the measure today.

Posted: July 17, 2007

HARRISBURG - The grueling state budget marathon reached its long-awaited conclusion last night as the bill sailed through the House on a 140-63 vote.

The Senate approved the budget earlier in the day.

Gov. Rendell is expected to sign the bill today, ending the hardest-fought budget battle since he took office in 2003.

The passage of the $27.2 billion fiscal blueprint - teetering on the brink of a new deadline that again could have threatened government operations - was nearly derailed by a controversy over the companion state spending-authorization bill.

Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the budget might have been two weeks late, but it represented a successful bipartisan compromise. Evans lauded fellow Democrats who fought for education and economic-development priorities.

"When I started out back in February giving an olive branch to my good friend on other side of aisle, there's no way I thought we'd be here 16 or 17 days past deadline," he said. "I don't believe anyone's at fault. . . . What I believe is, I tried to do a budget that would try to meet the needs of the state."

Republican budget negotiators agreed, saying they were happy with the fiscal restraint shown in the spending plan that delivered no new taxes.

"This is the beginning, where you see both sides working together, a beginning we can take back to the people of Pennsylvania as a bipartisan effort of what we can accomplish," said State Rep. Mario J. Civera Jr. (R., Delaware), the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee.

Bolstered by a $650 million surplus, the budget is hailed as win-win for everyone; Republicans who control the Senate got a more conservative spending plan, and Rendell, who claimed victory in his quest to secure major increases for public schools and the passage of health programs and energy policies that he tied to the budget negotiations.

But it came with a cost.

The extended budget impasse led to a partial government shutdown last week and the first-ever furlough of 24,000 state workers, who lost a day's pay.

And as the state entered its second week without a budget, the treasurer's office raised the prospect of delaying this week's paycheck for all state workers.

State Treasurer Robin L. Wiessmann said in a letter yesterday that she is "reasonably confident" that workers would be paid Friday.

Lawmakers spent most of yesterday - their 28th day in session during the last six weeks - dickering over issues to the point of absurdity. Among the topics: whether smoking should be permitted in Amish buggies.

There were issues of pressing statewide significance taken up on the chamber floors yesterday as well, including finding money for a near-bankrupt hazardous-site cleanup program, and whether to enact tougher gun laws.

By midevening, House Democratic and Republican leaders had recommended that a decision on funding for the cleanup program be delayed until the fall.

An amendment to the fiscal code - the spending-authorization bill - needed to withhold the hazardous-waste spending, ran into trouble with Republicans, who complained vigorously that the bill had been foisted upon them at the last minute.

They tried unsuccessfully to shoot down the bill over language they felt authorized raiding the gambling revenue fund that is supposed to be set aside for property-tax relief.

In addition, a historic gun-law bill, requiring tracing illegal weapons found in possession of anyone under 21 and setting stiffer penalties for crimes with rifles or other long guns, won final House approval. Rendell said he would sign it.

The state budget, passed earlier by the Senate, 46-2, was praised by both sides.

"No one came away completely satisfied," said Sen. Gerald J. LaValle (D., Allegheny), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. "No one came away empty-handed."

Republican senators said they were pleased about defeating seven tax increases proposed by the governor, and holding state spending, which rose by 4.4 percent this year, to its smallest increase since 2003.

Sen. Gibson E. Armstrong (R., Lancaster) said the budget was the first step toward reining in spending. "This kind of spending restraint has long been absent in Harrisburg," he said.

Rendell hoped to use the budget process as leverage to enact an ambitious agenda, including a new energy plan, a smoking ban, and transportation funding.

In the end, Rendell got the transportation bill, which pours new money into mass transit, and agreed to postpone consideration of his energy plan until September. But the Senate rejected the House's version of the statewide smoking ban, delaying final passage until at least the fall.

Rendell collided with the newly empowered antitax and open-government movement, born out of the 2005 pay-raise debacle that propelled 55 lawmakers into office.

Lawmakers, who get paid on the first business day monthly, have not received checks since June 1.

Among the bills sought by Rendell, and passed, are several to expand the duties of medical professionals - such as dental hygienists - as a way to cut health-care costs and make treatment more accessible.

Substantial new money is in the budget to boost prekindergarten programs, bring laptop computers to high school classrooms, improve the quality of day care for children of low-income families, and expand home and community services to the elderly and disabled.


Budget at a Glance

Details of the state budget approved by the legislature for the fiscal year that began July 1:

Spending

Increases total state general fund spending by 3.2 percent to $27.2 billion. The increase is 4.4 percent, counting $300 million in mass-transit money being diverted into a special fund.

Taxes

Includes no new broad-based tax or fee increases.

Reduces capital stock and franchise tax by 0.1 percent, or about $200 million; excludes "goodwill" payments in bank acquisitions from taxation, a loss of about $12 million; increases spending on educational improvement tax credit from $59 million to $75 million; adds $75 million for new tax credit for commercial film producers.

Education

Boosts overall spending by 5.8 percent to $10.5 billion.

Increases basic-education subsidy by 3.5 percent to nearly $5 billion, funding for laptops in high schools by 350 percent to $90 million, and special-education funding by 3 percent to $1 billion.

Adds $75 million in new funding for prekindergarten programs in public schools.

Public Welfare

Boosts overall spending by almost 4 percent to $9.7 billion.

Saves $200 million by delaying payment to Medicaid service providers.

Increases county child-welfare services by 10 percent to $966.7 million, community-living services for the mentally retarded by 10 percent to $868.1 million, long-term care for the low-income elderly by 10 percent to $762.6 million, community services for mental-health patients by 6 percent to $723.7 million, child day-care services for low-income families by 35 percent to $144.9 million, therapy services for young developmentally disabled children by 16 percent to $119.7 million, at-home attendant care services for the physically disabled by 25 percent to $84.8 million, and community services for people in need of nursing care by 32 percent to $69 million.

Public Safety

Boosts spending on state prisons by 13 percent to $1.6 billion.

Debt

Boosts payments on general obligation debt by 2.6 percent to $871 million.

SOURCES: Senate Republican Appropriations Committee, House Democratic Appropriations Committee; AP.


For Pennsylvania House roll call votes, go to

For Pennsylvania Senate roll call votes, go to


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

Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association intern Alex Roarty contributed to this article.

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