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House, Senate send Pennsylvania budget to Gov. Wolf

Both chambers recessed until after July 4th, when they say they’ll try to balance the spending plan.

The main spending bill in a $32 billion bipartisan budget package is past the Pennsylvania Legislature on the state fiscal year’s final day, although lawmakers don’t know how it’ll all be funded.

The House voted 173-27 on Friday, hours after the Senate voted 43-7. The package was unveiled a day earlier, after being negotiated in secret. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf supports it, but has yet to say whether he’ll sign it if lawmakers can’t figure out a spending plan. (Click here for his statement.)

Both chambers recessed until at least Wednesday, and lawmakers say they’ll try next week to find $2 billion-plus to cover the shortfall.

Browne: ‘No easy answers’ on Pa. budget

The governor’s office says spending is virtually flat under the package. Counting the amounts above the last approved budget of $31.5 billion, the increase is nearly 3 percent. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to universities is awaiting passage until lawmakers pass a revenue plan.

Lehigh Valley lawmakers voiced support for the package.

“I voted for this budget bill (House Bill 218) because it makes key investments in education and successful economic development programs and will make our State government run more effectively and efficiently,” state Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Lehigh/Northampton, said in a statement. “Even though financial resources are limited, I was pleased that this bipartisan spending plan increases education funding by $175 million. …

“Like all budgets, there was a great deal of give-and-take negotiation. However, I am satisfied by this frugal and targeted approach to appropriating limited state funds.”

State Rep. Peter Schweyer, D-Lehigh, stated: “I’m particularly pleased to see $100 million added for basic education and $25 million more for special education as originally requested by the governor. That means an additional $2.8 million in basic education and $434,427 in special education for the Allentown School District. It also includes a $30 million increase for Pre-K Counts and Head Start, which are important early childhood education initiatives with proven success.”

Here are some highlights of the bipartisan spending plan for Pennsylvania state government’s 2017-18 budget year that starts Saturday:

THE BIG PICTURE

It increases spending through the state’s main bank account to almost $32 billion. The governor’s office counts the spending increase in the new fiscal year as $54 million, or 0.2 percent, using a baseline of more than $31.9 billion. That means that spending in the just-ending fiscal year rose 6 percent.

Using the state’s last enacted budget figure of just over $31.5 billion as a baseline for both fiscal years, the budget package approves an extra $870 million more in spending, or almost 3 percent. That includes approximately $410 million more going on the just-ending fiscal year’s books and $460 million more on the new fiscal year’s books. Wolf had initially proposed a budget of about $32.3 billion in February, including $1 billion in new spending when counting approximately $230 million being requested for the just-ending fiscal year.

The package lacks legislation to fully fund it. It requires more than $2 billion in yet-to-be-identified cash to balance, according to lawmakers. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to universities is awaiting passage until lawmakers pass a revenue plan.

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SPECIFICS

— Plans to merge the Department of Corrections and Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole into a new Department of Criminal Justice.

— Plans to merge the Human Services and Health departments, but keep the Aging and Drug and Alcohol Programs departments separate.

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EDUCATION

— Increases aid for public school operations and instruction by $100 million, an increase of nearly 2 percent to $6 billion.

— Increases early-childhood education funding by $30 million, an increase of 15 percent to $226 million.

— Increases special education funding by $25 million, an increase of 2 percent to above $1.1 billion.

— Increases state-owned university aid by $9 million, an increase of 2 percent to $453 million; otherwise holds higher education funding flat at $1.6 billion.

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DEPARTMENT SPENDING

— EDUCATION: Grows 3.5 percent to $12.2 billion.

— HUMAN SERVICES: Cut 2 percent to $12.1 billion.

— PENSIONS: Grows 6 percent to approximately $4.3 billion

— PRISONS AND PAROLE: Cut by less than 1 percent to $2.5 billion.

–STATE POLICE: Grows almost 7 percent to more than $1.3 billion.

— COURTS: Held flat at $355.5 million.

— GENERAL ASSEMBLY: Grows 5 percent to $325 million.

— ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION: Cut by less than 1 percent to $148 million.

— ATTORNEY GENERAL’S OFFICE: Held flat at $96 million.

— OPIOID AND HEROIN RESPONSE: Grows 19 percent to almost $76 million.

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The governor issued the following statement on the budget: 

“Over the past two years, Republicans and Democrats have worked together to make progress for the people of Pennsylvania.

“After decades of failure, we passed pension reform that will put Pennsylvania on the path to a sustainable fiscal future, save taxpayers billions, and reduce payments to Wall Street fund managers. This budget fully funds our pension obligations. We passed the most significant liquor reform since prohibition. We set our differences aside, and made real changes for customers and taxpayers.

“After years of devastating education cuts, we have restored more than $800 million in education funding. I am going to keep fighting to fix our schools, but this budget represents one of the most significant investments in schools in our lifetime. And we passed a fair funding formula, taking Pennsylvania off a shameful list of states without a way to fairly fund their schools. This budget keeps investing in schools.

“Together, we’ve fought the heroin and opioid crisis that continues to plague our communities. We have developed treatment options and provided lifesaving medicine, but we know the crisis has not abated so we’re continuing to fight by making drug courts available to low level offenders so those who are struggling can get treatment.

“Today, we finalized a general appropriations bill. It’s a start, and it’s not everything I wanted or everything Republicans wanted, but unlike D.C., we can compromise and get things done just like when we passed bipartisan pension reform and bipartisan liquor reform.

“This budget includes much of the savings, efficiencies, and cuts I proposed in February in my budget address. But we avoided deep, indiscriminate cuts that would have endangered our ability to deliver services to the people of Pennsylvania.

“This budget invests over $175 million more in our schools. Over the past two years, we’ve restored more than $800 million in cuts to schools.

“This budget helps those in Pennsylvania who need help the most. It reduces the waiting list for those with intellectual disabilities; this budget makes additional investments in our efforts to fight the opioid epidemic; this budget invests in key programs to create manufacturing jobs in Pennsylvania, and allows the commonwealth to team up with businesses and institutions of higher learning to create jobs and a strong workforce.

“And it builds on our efforts to make government more efficient and responsive. We consolidated IT and HR functions, and through an internal team focused on finding efficiencies and making government more effective, we have saved over $150 million and improved customer service at places like DMVs. I have rolled up my sleeves and worked with employees throughout the commonwealth to deliver change and efficiencies, and I am heartened that the legislature has joined my efforts.

“But there is still work to do: We need a sustainable revenue package that gets Pennsylvania on track. For too many years, Pennsylvania has lurched from crisis to crisis. We began to address it with pension reform, and by fully funding our pension obligation, we have taken another important step. But Pennsylvania cannot get ahead if we do not take our responsibility for long term financial stability seriously. Let’s redouble our efforts, and continue to show people the progress we can make by working together.”

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‘Devil’s in the details’: Valley Republicans optimistic on Wolf’s budget

Gov. Tom Wolf proposed a $32.3 billion spending plan, 3.2 percent larger than the current fiscal year’s spending.

Republican lawmakers representing the Lehigh Valley voice cautious optimism on Gov. Tom Wolf‘s fiscal year 2017-18 budget presented Tuesday.

“Now the devil’s in the details,” state Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in remarks shared via Twitter. “We’ll have to do our due diligence as part of the Senate appropriations process to make sure it works.”

Wolf’s $32.3 billion spending plan, 3.2 percent bigger than this fiscal year’s budget, includes an ambitious consolidation of four departments — Human Services, Health, Aging and Drug and Alcohol Programs — into one Department of Health and Human Services. It’s an idea floated for years but never acted on, Browne said.

“The consolidation proposal is a huge proposal: $34 billion department, it’s going to grow from there,” he said, noting that the governor needs to demonstrate the ability to provide better service at lower prices. “If it’s just bigger government it’s just not going to do what we need it to do. So that’s going to be a big issue.”

Sen. Lisa Boscola, a Democrat like Wolf, called the budget “a workable solution to the state’s financial challenges.”

“I share the governor’s interest in cutting and consolidating government services by $2.1 billion to avoid raising” sales or income taxes, she said in a statement. “Cutting, consolidating and modernizing state government will not only enable us to close the budget deficit, but will also empower us to invest more dollars in creating jobs, reinvigorating our manufacturing sector and adequately funding our schools.”

Boscola, who represents communities in Lehigh and Northampton counties, called for more work on reducing or eliminating local property taxes, and voiced hope that the budget will be passed on time by June 30.

My thoughts following today’s budget address. Encouraged by the govt. efficiency & job creation pts. @GovernorTomWolf @LtGovStack #pabudget pic.twitter.com/gOX79v77kH

— Senator Lisa Boscola (@SenLisaBoscola) February 7, 2017

Wolf’s budget does raise some taxes — by $1 billion — largely by imposing a new tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling and eliminating what his administration views as tax loopholes. It also eliminates sales-tax exemptions on custom programming, design and data processing; commercial storage; and aircraft sales, use and repair.

Central to the budget is additional money for education funding, including pre-kindergarten, special education and Head Start assistance.

State Rep. Joseph Emrick, R-Northampton, said he welcomes “the change of tone” of the governor.

“He has come to the realization that fiscal responsibility is the course Pennsylvania must take in order to turn around our economy and set us on a path to prosperity,” Emrick said in a statement.

“Today’s address is a good start,” Emrick stated, “and I’m anxious to work with my colleagues to pass a fiscally responsible budget that protects the hard-working taxpayers of Pennsylvania.”

How Gov. Wolf wants to plug a $3B deficit

State Rep. Marcia Hahn, R-Northampton, also called the proposal a good starting point, according to a statement.

“Gov. Wolf’s budget address is a distinct and refreshing change from those of his first two years in office when broad-based taxes were his default way of solving our revenue problems,” stated Hahn, a majority member of the House Appropriations Committee that will hold hearings on the budget. “Choosing a fiscally responsible path to prosperity is what taxpayers demand and deserve, and I applaud his change of heart.”

Rep. Ryan Mackenzie, R-Berks/Lehigh, credited Republican arguments against “more broad-based taxes and increased spending” with helping to sway Wolf’s budgetary view.

“I am intrigued by some of his proposals and look forward to learning more about his plans to reduce costs,” he stated. “As the old saying goes, ‘The devil is in the details.'”

Newly elected state Rep. Zach Mako, R-Lehigh/Northampton, said his focus is on property tax reform, job creation and infrastructure improvements.

“Any final budget must rein in government spending, not burden taxpayers, and signal Pennsylvania is open for business,” Mako stated. “Now is the time to restart Pennsylvania. We need to grow the commonwealth’s economy.”

Kurt Bresswein may be reached at kbresswein@lehighvalleylive.com. Follow him on Twitter @KurtBresswein. Find lehighvalleylive.com on Facebook.

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