With time tight, House budget advances

The bill moves funds to close a $1.5 billion gap. Democrats said school districts were snubbed.

Posted: June 26, 2014

HARRISBURG - A House panel on Tuesday advanced a $29.1 billion budget, setting the stage for final negotiations with the Senate and Gov. Corbett on the 2014-15 spending plan.

The Appropriations Committee voted, 21-14, along party lines to move the proposal to the House floor, but it is likely to undergo significant changes before reaching Corbett's desk.

The bill proposes to close a $1.5 billion budget gap by transferring funds from other sources, including the sale of state liquor stores - a plan that hasn't materialized.

Still, Committee Chairman Bill Adolph (R., Delaware) called the proposal a "step forward" to getting a budget done by the Monday deadline.

The bill is expected to be debated Wednesday on the House floor.

Democrats assailed the legislation as unrealistic and said it shortchanges schools that have suffered under past budget cuts.

"It's a budget that is based on supposition, shaky assumptions, unknown revenues - and raises many questions and concerns," said Bill Patton, spokesman for House Democratic leaders.

The bill allocates an additional $70 million across 500 school districts, compared with the $350 million Corbett proposed in his February budget address. It does not contain line-item allocations for Philadelphia or other school districts.

Corbett last week said he was willing to let the June 30 budget deadline pass if legislators could not address two of his priorities: the soaring cost of public employee pensions and the privatization of wine and spirits sales.

His spokesman, Jay Pagni, was circumspect about the committee vote.

"The passage today out of committee continues to move the budget process forward," he said. "We want to find common ground on priorities through the negotiations process."

The House GOP-backed bill slices $300 million off Corbett's proposed spending plan. It also assumes $380 million from the sale of the liquor stores and an additional $150 million from oil and gas leases.

Senate leaders in both parties say it is unlikely that legislation to fully privatize the state liquor system can be passed in the next six days.

The Senate is considering expanding the sale of wine and beer in non-State Stores, but that measure would not generate the revenue needed under the House budget proposal.

The Senate will take up the budget bill once it passes the House.

"The key is what revenue will be in 2014-15," said Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Republicans. "We need to know what the sources will be. We are some days away from final agreement."

Senate GOP leaders have said they are considering imposing a tax on natural gas drilling - along with other limited tax hikes targeting, for instance, tobacco products - that could raise as much as $700 million in the first year.

Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.), the highest ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he hoped Democratic and Republican leaders in both chambers can come together to work out a final budget.

Hughes said he would be pushing for immediate Medicaid expansion, which the Senate passed with bipartisan support last year - and which could mean $400 million in savings this year.

"We need to make sensible changes that people in the state support," he said.


aworden@phillynews.com

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