Any Pa. budget deal remains under wraps

Posted: June 23, 2012

HARRISBURG - There may be a deal on the state budget's bottom line, but its details are still being worked out behind closed doors.

More than a day has come and gone since Gov. Corbett and Republican legislative leaders announced they had agreed to spend $27.65 billion in the fiscal year that begins July 1. They have yet to lay out the particulars, saying negotiators still had to work out hard and fast numbers.

But on Thursday, a few of those numbers emerged. There was heartening news for colleges and kindergartens, bad news for temporarily disabled people on general assistance, and money for an initiative on school choice.

The four state-related universities, which include Temple and Penn State, will get back most of the 30 percent cut Corbett proposed, GOP legislators said. Also getting most of their funding back will be the 14 colleges in the State System of Higher Education, which stood to see aid dwindle by 20 percent.

There will also be funding for the block grants that school districts use to pay for all-day kindergarten and other early-childhood programs. Corbett had proposed ending those, but it appears most, if not all, of the $100 million for the program will be restored.

More dollars will go to the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC). Corbett and legislative leaders want to lift to $100 million the $75 million cap on the program, which gives tax breaks to businesses that provide scholarship aid to low- to middle-income students.

Legislators also appear to be in agreement with Corbett on creating a similar pot of money under the EITC umbrella of $50 million or more. It would target pupils in the worst-performing schools, a concept similar to that of the school voucher bill that Corbett wanted but did not garner enough support in the House.

One reason the latest proposal may be easier to sell: The money consists of tax credits, and unlike vouchers, wouldn't redirect school aid.

"This would take no money out of existing line items for public schools," noted Rep. Mike Vereb (R., Montgomery), adding that the measure had bipartisan support.

The same cannot be said for all of the budget - indeed, the only negotiators at the table have been Corbett and fellow Republicans who control the House and Senate. Democrats have lamented an array of cuts in welfare programs but don't have the votes to stop them.

Negotiators hope to affix numbers to most major items by Friday. Regardless, there will be a mad rush next week for both chambers to move the budget and related bills to Corbett's desk by the June 30 deadline.

If they succeed, it would mark Corbett's second on-time budget, a feat never achieved in eight years by Democratic predecessor Ed Rendell.

One item unlikely to survive, despite protests from church groups and advocates for the poor, is the so-called general assistance program that provides cash benefits to nearly 70,000 temporarily disabled adults. Corbett proposed eliminating the funding, and legislative leaders did not seek to restore it.

Brenda Freeman of West Philadelphia, who has peripheral edema, which swells tissues in her arms and legs, said that program had been "my only income." Freeman, 38, whose condition makes it very difficult to stand or sit for long periods and who telephoned The Inquirer to protest the cut, said: "What am I going to have to do - eat out of a trash can?"

"There still is a chance to do something," she said. "I'm hoping that they do the right thing."


Contact Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or acouloumbis@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @AngelasInk.

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