Pennsylvania lawmakers go down to the wire on state budget

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett reacts after signing the state budget documents in the rotunda of the capitol Thursday, June 30, 2011 in Harrisburg, PA. (AP Photo/Bradley C Bower)
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett reacts after signing the state budget documents in the rotunda of the capitol Thursday, June 30, 2011 in Harrisburg, PA. (AP Photo/Bradley C Bower) (AP)
Posted: July 01, 2012

HARRISBURG — There were only 15 minutes to spare before the midnight deadline, but Gov. Corbett got his $27.65 billion state budget signed on time for Pennsylvania for the second year in a row.

At 11:45 p.m., Corbett and top Republican legislators began gathering in the Capitol rotunda to proclaim a responsible, on-time budget that does not raise taxes and keeps a tight lid on spending.

"Hopefully, we are developing a habit, and I think Pennsylvania citizens will appreciate that habit of being on time," the Republican governor said of the spending plan for the 2012-2013 fiscal year, which begins Sunday.

The signing ceremony capped a frenetic day in the Capitol, with legislators working past 11:30 p.m. to approve all the bills necessary to claim an on-time budget. In fact, Corbett began signing budget bills even as the legislature was wrapping up its work.

Slowing things down earlier in the day: a stubborn disagreement between Republicans who control the two chambers on several education measures, including one to increase the state’s role in regulating charter schools. Legislative leaders met through dinner to work out a solution, but were unable to resolve the dispute before the budget deadline, after which they will scatter to begin their break for the summer.

The negotiated budget contains no new taxes — in keeping with Corbett’s campaign pledge — and is about 1.5 percent more than this year’s plan.

Public schools, for the most part, are flat-funded, as are the four state-related universities, including Temple and Lincoln, and the 14 schools in the State System of Higher Education.

The budget does contain nearly $300 million in tax cuts for businesses, and the agreement negotiated by Corbett and GOP legislative leaders also calls for a tax credit to entice Shell Chemical L.P. to build a petrochemical refinery in Western Pennsylvania.

“I think it’s a pretty historic night in Pennsylvania,” said House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny). “It’s a budget that is very balanced, and very fair.”

Democrats disagree.

The budget calls for slicing funding for an array of human-services programs for the mentally ill, the homeless, and people fighting alcohol and drug addictions, leading many Democrats to criticize it as placing the priorities of big business over those of the needy.

It also would eliminate a cash-assistance program that helps nearly 70,000 people, including the temporarily disabled, victims of domestic abuse, and recovering addicts.

Originally, they would have lost the benefits starting Sunday, but the Corbett administration has agreed to delay the program’s elimination by a month, until Aug. 1, to ensure recipients are properly notified.

“This budget only serves to illustrate how the governor has forsaken disadvantaged Pennsylvanians, instead favoring tax breaks for energy companies and big businesses,” said Sen. LeAnna Washington (D., Philadelphia), once a welfare recipient herself.

“I was able to lift myself out of hard times thanks to the very programs that were cut, and my heart breaks for those who will be left behind by this administration’s disregard for those who need government the most,” she said.

Beyond the main $27.65 billion budget deal, Corbett had pushed for several education measures.

One of those bills, involving charter schools, caused the budget logjam Friday and Saturday.

The governor had wanted legislation to create a state commission to authorize new charter schools, taking that power from local school boards. He had worked out a compromise with the legislature last week, but it fell apart.

On Saturday, the two chambers passed dueling proposals, each containing provisions that no one had any information about before they were brought up for a public vote. Both would give the state more say in overseeing charter schools but leave local school boards in charge of authorizing them.

The two sides negotiated hard, but as the day progressed, the measure increasingly appeared doomed.

One Corbett priority that passed: expanding from $75 million to $100 million the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC), which gives tax breaks to businesses that provide scholarship aid to low- to middle-income students, and a plan to create a new pot of money under the EITC umbrella that would target scholarship aid to pupils in the worst-performing schools.

Other education-related bills that Corbett will sign involve establishing a process to identify and deal with distressed schools, and changing the way public school teachers are evaluated, from a system now based entirely on classroom observation to one that would be based in part on student scores.


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

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